Nothing is certain.
It took five years for basketball to replace football as the program we expect the most from. Bruce Pearl coached his first game in Knoxville the same weekend the Vols lost to Vanderbilt in football in 2005, the final blow to a season that began with the Vols ranked #3 in preseason polls. Since then, football has been a roller coaster that has reached what we all hope is the low point. But basketball, for the most part, has made a steady climb, and reached the definitive high point last season.
Like most good basketball programs, Pearl's first five years were largely the work of two core groups of players - the Vols didn't get it done with just one guy, even on Chris Lofton's best night. For the Lofton/Juanny/Bradshaw core, to play basketball was to overachieve. Though none of those guys will probably ever see a minute of NBA action, they took the Vols to the Sweet 16 in consecutive years and spent a week at number one, which had never been done here before.
Last year, we saw just how valuable the Chism/Prince/Maze core was, especially once Tyler Smith was removed from the equation. Though none of those guys was a better college player than Lofton (and really, who will be?), all three have a better shot seeing action in the NBA. The second core was a little bit better than the first one, and the Vols went one round deeper.
So now, we turn the page to a new group of players. It will be Pearl's deepest team yet, with nine players who saw significant action last year, two transfers, and three dynamic freshmen. Though five of those fourteen are seniors, three of them are transfers (Josh Bone, John Fields, Melvin Goins) who haven't played enough at this university to be considered a core guy...yet. The other two seniors are the coach's son and Brian Williams, who lives to be asked if he's lost weight.
But despite the abundance of new faces and the absence of Wayne's headband or J.P.'s face after a whistle, there is the potential for an even more talented core here of Tobias/Hopson/Williams. They haven't done enough yet (or at all in Tobias's case) to be thought of the way we remember those first two groups, but if NBA scouts had their pick, they're taking this core over the other two.
Still, nothing is certain - as we've seen, not football's success at this university, nor basketball's failure. Last year we saw a team lose its best player on January 1, beat the nation's best team with walk-ons two weeks later, and become the program's best ever, advancing to UT's only Elite Eight appearance and coming up one point short of the Final Four. To relive the incredible story of last year's basketball team, check out our season retrospective from March 30.
And this year, when we were certain that basketball would be there to pick us up while football was in the dumps, because we were certain our coach could do no wrong, Bruce Pearl added an additional layer of questions for this team and this program to answer.
Here's the thing about Pearl and the NCAA investigation: even if the case doesn't get fully resolved until after the season is over, you and I are going to wake up every day between now and then and wonder if this is the day when more information comes out. It's the consequence before the consequences, and while we wait for the rest of the story, we'll watch to see how this team will react. These Vols are familiar with adversity; Tatum, Goins, and Williams are all still on the team and will all be significant contributors this year. Will they rally around their coach and each other again?
Adversity also presented itself in the form of Michigan State last year, a game the Vols had every reason to be happy just to be in, but an outcome that left us thinking about what might have been. Two years ago, another deep Tennessee team that had just lost its most familiar faces entered the year with a world of expectation, played a brutal schedule, and flamed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They never quite became what we thought they should become, and though they won the SEC East, they underachieved in part because they lacked the urgency of their predecessors. Bruce's first three teams were hungry...his fourth team might've been a bit entitled.
So now, after his fifth team faced unforeseen adversity, reached uncharted territory, and missed the Final Four by a single point, does that single point make this team entitled...or does it make them hungry?
With everything we've seen and despite everyone we lost, I think we have the right ingredients within that core - Hopson's personal role in that loss with the missed free throw, Brian Williams' final transformation, and the arrival of Tobias Harris - to make this team hungry, and to give this team a chance to compete deep into March again. There's a common thought that you need three NBA players to win an NCAA Championship. For the first time in a long time in Knoxville, we might have three NBA players within that core.
But before they become NBA players, they'll put on for Tennessee, and take the program's next steps. Will we struggle without our old core and in the midst of new adversity? Or will the new core and the deepest supporting cast we've ever had make sure everyone knows that Tennessee not only isn't going away, but can and will continue to go forward?