Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin knows there's plenty of talent in the Southeastern Conference, especially with the top team in the nation around.
He'll take Volunteers forward Jeronne Maymon against any of them.
''When you're talking about SEC players and the way they compete and bring their hard hat every day, I'd put him up against anybody,'' Martin said. ''He brings it every day and he never takes days off. The thing about him is the way he plays, how hard he plays, to not take days off and to do pretty much everything on the floor for you.
''He's invaluable for our program.''
Without Maymon, Tennessee (16-13, 8-6) wouldn't be tied for fourth place in the SEC with just a Wednesday trip to LSU (17-11, 7-7) and a Saturday meeting with Vanderbilt left to the season, Martin said. His hard work day in and day out has turned him into Tennessee's most consistent player and a team leader both on and off the court.
The 6-foot-7, 265-pound Madison, Wis., native grabbed attention at the Maui Invitational in November when he exploded for 32 points and a tournament-record 20 rebounds in Tennessee's double-overtime loss to Memphis.
He's hit his stride during the SEC season, scoring at least 12 points in every conference game. In SEC games, Maymon leads the Vols in scoring (14.4 ppg), rebounding (8.1 rpg), field-goal percentage (.602) and steals (1.1 spg), and he ranks fourth among all SEC players in rebounding in conference games.
''It's just a mindset, going out there and playing hard each and every possession, knowing where my spots are and knowing my strengths,'' Maymon said.
His efforts this season have been a pleasant surprise for the Vols.
Maymon played nine games at Marquette before transferring to Tennessee midway through his freshman season and became eligible to play for the Vols in December 2010. He did very little for either team in those first two seasons.
As a freshman with the Golden Eagles, he averaged just four points and 4.2 rebounds in 16.3 minutes per game. As a sophomore playing for former Vols coach Bruce Pearl, Maymon averaged. 2.6 points and 2.8 rebounds in 9.1 minutes per game while playing in 14 contests.
Maymon didn't give Pearl much of a reason to put him on the floor. Not only was he not very productive at the basket or on the boards, the forward was foul- and turnover-prone and hit only 5 of 20 free throws all season.
''Hard work pays off,'' Martin said. ''I said to the guys who didn't play a lot last year but were on the team, there's probably a reason why you didn't play. You have to truly understand that as a player.''
When Martin took over the team in March, he preached to his players that hard work would earn playing time, and strong defensive play would keep them on the floor.
Maymon now comes to the gym at times during the mornings and gets extra shots in before afternoon practices. He's focused on improving his ball-handling skills and has limited his turnovers and fouls this season. When his shots aren't falling, his defense and rebounding doesn't let up and he finds ways to get his teammates the ball.
''If you need a bucket, you can always go to him,'' sophomore guard Jordan McRae said. ''Jeronne, he causes a lot of attention, and him being so unselfish he gets us a lot of shots. Jeronne will find you wide-open. He has no problem making that pass.''
While Martin lauds Maymon as a great player - he compares him to Michigan State senior forward and player of the year candidate Draymond Green - he still thinks the junior has a little bit more to do to become an elite player. Primarily, Martin wants Maymon to develop his shot from the perimeter.
It's something Maymon has worked on in practice but hasn't felt comfortable putting to the test. In three seasons, he's 0-for-7 from 3-point range.
Martin isn't pushing him too hard on it at the moment. He knows it's something Maymon can work on over the summer and introduce to his game as a senior, just as he did as a player before setting Purdue's single-game record with eight treys against Kansas in the 1995 NCAA tournament.
''He doesn't have to shoot five or six a game, just one or two, loosen up the defense,'' Martin said. ''It's when he feels comfortable shooting the ball. We will spend a lot of time this spring and summer getting his shot down from the 3-point line. If he can knock that top of the key three down with his ability to go off the dribble, he will be tough to defend. He is tough now.''