RTT's Weeklong 2010-11 Basketball Preview:
Monday: Vols - The New Core & The New Questions
The Vols open exhibition play tonight and play their first regular season game next Friday against UT-Chattanooga, which means this time six years ago Bruce Pearl was trying to explain how exactly Dane Bradshaw was our best option at power forward. In the last six years, the talent level in Knoxville has increased not just at the top, but at the bottom: Tennessee goes into the season with 14 players in legitimate competition for a spot in the rotation.
Obviously, that number is a little high - I think Tennessee would like to be working with a regular 10 man rotation (at most) by the time SEC play starts. The Vols will probably try lots of different things early, and we've seen before that Pearl is not at all afraid to make changes in the NCAA Tournament and put guys who haven't played in weeks on the floor. But while all 14 players may contribute over the course of the season, not all of them will get a chance to do it every night.
So what does Tennessee's best rotation look like? It's a hard question to answer with three freshmen and two transfers in the mix. But here's some early speculation on what the Vols' best basketball looks like:
Melvin Goins has the most experience by far, and there are whispers that he could be in for a huge year. Goins wasn't 100% healthy at the start of the season last year, and his involvement in the January 1 arrests set him back even more. But now in his final year in Knoxville, he's healthy and has both knowledge of and experience in Pearl's system, something Josh Bone has only a taste of. Last year the minutes at point guard were distributed between Bobby Maze (who averaged 24 minutes) and Goins (16 minutes) for the most part. If Goins can assume a leadership role on this team, the Vols may not have to have a backup who can play 16 minutes this year.
Goins had his best games against the Vols' toughest opponents: he was one of the few bright spots in Tennessee's Nashville/Lexington back-to-back road trip last year, and had a career high 15 against San Diego State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Goins may not be known for his shooting or his ball distribution (and it'll be interesting to see how much value Pearl places on that in distributing the PG minutes), but he can be a very physical presence at the position, getting to the rim with contact. He doesn't have to be the best player on the team, but he could become the key complementary piece to the core trio.
Bone, another senior transfer, is more known for his defense, and could again be used situationally to stop an opposing guard. The other two options are less conventional but very interesting: freshman Trae Golden will get a look at the position, as will sophomore Skylar McBee, who played shooting guard last year. Golden isn't a true point guard, but may be/hopefully is too talented to keep off the floor, and this is the best spot for him. McBee is the Vols' best free throw shooter, but 80% of the shots he took last year were threes. We have no idea if he has any additional game, and he was only the Vols' 8th best three point shooter last year at 31.3%...but McBee knocked down 48.7% of his threes playing in China this summer, so he didn't suddenly forget how to shoot. If he has any ball distribution skill, his potential as a shooter could be enough to give him the backup PG minutes.
Our call: Goins wins the starting job and keeps it the entire season, but Golden can't be kept off the floor and earns the backup minutes by tournament time. Even with Goins leaving after this year, the Vols have commitments from Chris Jones and Kevin Ware in the Class of 2011, both Top 15 point guards...so it's not that Golden has to be the PG of the future. Hopefully, he's just going to be too good to redshirt or keep off the floor right now.
We can't wait on Scotty Hopson any longer. The junior is a preseason All-SEC and did make progress from his freshman to his sophomore season...but now with Chism and Prince gone, when the Vols need points, he's going to be the first option.
We've seen him perform in that role already: the late shots he hit against Florida and Kentucky last year were two of the biggest plays of the season, and the 12.2 points per game he averaged last year were behind only Chism's 12.6, a three point increase from his freshman season.
But the key word on Scotty will once again be "consistency". We can certainly talk about the 17 points he scored against Kansas when the team needed leadership from anywhere they could find it, or the 64 points he scored in the final four games of the regular season. But then we also have to talk about the fact that he scored only 19 points on 6 of 29 shooting in three SEC Tournament games right after that. He completely disappeared in the Ohio State game (and I'm not sure this UT team is good enough to still win when if he does that), then scored 10 points against Michigan State two days later.
We know he supposedly continued to mature this summer, and we know he's rocking a throwback haircut...but we'll still have to wait and see if Hopson can become an every night threat for the Vols. He can get to the rim, he can knock down a jumper, and he's currently projected to be the sixth pick in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft by DraftExpress.com. If he's that good, we really need him to show it, now.
Cameron Tatum has been slowed by a bruised knee in preseason camp, and with 14 guys battling for a spot that's precious time he's lost. Tatum has struggled with injuries and issues throughout his entire career, but when he's played he has been effective. Tatum was, by far, the Vols' best three point shooter at 38.9% last year, and has delivered two almost-identical seasons in a sixth-man role with 7.4 and 7.6 points per game in approximately 17 minutes of action.
When the Vols started playing the rotation that eventually carried them to the Elite Eight last year, Tatum had a six game stretch in which he averaged 10.6 points in 19.1 minutes. And don't forget, he kept us in the game in the first half against Ohio State, when he scored all 11 of his points on the night.
We've seen Tatum get it done in spurts...so now, how close to 100% is he? And can he contribute at the same level if he's playing 20-25 minutes a night?
Also in the mix is Jordan McRae, a 6'6" freshman who, like Golden, will hopefully be too good to keep off the floor. As deep as the Vols are, I don't see McRae or Golden earning a redshirt. If the Vols can still produce with Tatum and McRae when Hopson's off the floor, Tennessee will go far this year.
There's also, of course, Renaldo Woolridge, who is best described by a bunch of words that compliment while still leaving you wanting more: tweener, great energy, great teammate...and still yet to find a consistent role with this team. I think we're all clear by now that he's just not an offensive post player - he finds his way to the perimeter despite his 6'9" frame, and has averaged only 2.6 and 3.4 points per game in his first two years. We all want Swipa to succeed...but you also worry that on a roster like this one, the opportunity may have passed him by. I think he needed a redshirt that we could never afford to give him...any chance that still happens this year?
Our call: It's Hopson, and then it's this question: does Cameron Tatum get fully healthy before Jordan McRae gets fully immersed in the system? Whichever happens first, that guy gets the start, and the other still gets significant minutes off the bench. Also, if Skylar doesn't get any point guard minutes, he could still easily get 3-5 here.
Let's start with what we know: Brian Williams is back, has lost more weight, and is still in search of a consensus on a nickname. While I'm partial to BWill because of my own name, I feel like "The Nightly News" never got enough play. Also still in play: "The Neighborhood" and "The Death Star". There's only one Big Baby, and he plays for the Celtics.
One final offseason of work has put Williams - currently listed at 272 lbs. - in position to earn a future for himself with a big senior season. He was the final piece of the puzzle for the Vols last year, as his return sparked an 8-2 finish to the year that saw the Vols lose only to Kentucky and Michigan State while making the Elite Eight for the first time in school history. During that stretch, Williams had a 10-13 at Mississippi State, averaged 7 points and 9 boards in the SEC Tournament, and had 41 rebounds in 4 NCAA Tournament games. This is the first time in his career he'll be playing without Wayne Chism on the block, but the Vols may not need him to duplicate Chism's 12.6 points per game.
That's because Tobias Harris enters the fray as the nation's #7 recruit according to Rivals. Harris stands 6'8" and brings an inside-out game to the table that should fill the hole left by Chism's departure - this kid will be expected to not just contribute, but excel right away. We've seen plenty of freshmen come in and make an instant impact in this league - if the Vols want to get back to the Elite Eight and beyond, Tobias has to make an impact right now. We'll see just how big that impact can be.
Returning to the fray in the post is Kenny Hall, who averaged 3.6 points and 3.0 rebounds in 12.4 minutes in his freshman season. He showed flashes at times, scoring in double figures five out of eight games from North Carolina A&T thru Georgia, including a double-double at Alabama. Then he appeared to hit a bit of a wall, which is expected from a freshman. Even if Hall doesn't become a star this year, the Vols will need him in a big way in 2011-12, so we want to see progress. It's also possible that the Vols could put a lineup on the floor that goes big and slides Tobias to the 3, giving UT a front line of 6'8", 6'9", 6'11". It's a luxury we haven't had much of in the past.
Steven Pearl is also back, along with his 26.3% free throw percentage. He shot something similar in the PRTL this summer. God bless Steven Pearl...but with the new guys we have coming in in the post, if we see much of Baby Pearl, it's probably because something went wrong.
The new guys also include transfers John Fields and Jeronne Maymon, from UNC-Wilmington and Marquette, respectively. Fields is a 6'9" senior who averaged 10.2 points and 8.7 rebounds last year, but where the Vols really like him is as a shot blocker - he averaged 2.3 per game last year, and had as many as six in a single game. Maymon is a 6'6" sophomore who will be available once the fall semester is over, who averaged 4.0 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16.3 minutes in 9 games for Marquette last year. We'll see what he's got once he gets in, which could be as early as the Pittsburgh game. In December 2007 we saw J.P. Prince come in as a transfer and make an immediate impact, so it's not out of the question that Maymon could become a key part of the Vols' rotation right away.
Our call: It's definitely Tobias and Brian Williams to start, and then the Vols have a good problem in trying to figure out the bench post minutes. Kenny Hall and Maymon should both get involved, and we'll wait to see if Fields can make enough of an impact with his shot blocking to warrant playing time. Either way, the Vols should always be fresh in the post.