The immediate future of Tennessee Basketball perhaps rests more on four players than on their new coach. Or better said, Cuonzo Martin's best chance for early success is to convince some or all of Scotty Hopson, Tobias Harris, Chris Jones, and Kevin Ware to put on a Tennessee uniform next season.
Tennessee can force the issue, to a degree, with the incoming freshmen: Jones and Ware have already signed scholarship papers, and UT could refuse to release them. Both players would have to sit out a full year while paying their own way somewhere else, a year of their basketball careers lost. Martin has contacted both players and will meet with them face-to-face after the Final Four - we'll see what comes of that. Martin indicated he would give both players a release if they wanted one after a face-to-face meeting.
But Tennessee doesn't have a tangible card it can play in the futures of Hopson and Harris, unquestionably the Vols' best players this past season. Both have said they would test the NBA Draft waters, holding workouts and getting advice from scouts and executives as to where they might be drafted. The deadline to enter one's name for the NBA Draft is April 24, but a player can then withdraw their name, if they do not sign with an agent, until May 7. Scouts can't start working out early entry prospects until April 29, giving players just over a week to make their final choice on whether they'll stay or go.
Scotty Hopson went through some of this process last year before ultimately returning to Tennessee. Not much has changed with Hopson's draft stock in the last year: he's a mid-second round pick according to Draft Express, and is rated as the 45th best prospect by ESPN.com's Chad Ford.
Tobias Harris has a slightly higher profile - Draft Express has him going 28th (out of 30) in the first round, and 29th overall by Chad Ford, who says in his analysis that he could be the next Shane Battier.
Aside from the issues with a new coach in Knoxville, there's an additional unknown factor with an NBA lockout looming. So there will be uncertainty for both players, stay or leave.
So what should Scotty and Tobias do?
Tobias, as we all know, was incredibly consistent in putting together the best freshman season we've seen at UT since Allan Houston twenty-one years ago. Harris scored in double figures in 31 of UT's 34 games and had eight double-doubles, finishing with 15.3 points and 7.3 rebounds on average. The Vols started to lean on him more at the very end of the season, and he responded by averaging 21.4 points in the final five games of the year. Curiously, Harris became a first-half only player in UT's three SEC/NCAA Tournament games, scoring 53 of his 64 points in the first twenty minutes, including all of his 19 points in the game against Michigan. Some of that has to be credited to halftime adjustments, and his numbers overall were still good enough to not make it a serious concern.
If Harris stays he could be SEC Player of the Year, as a number of the league's best players were seniors (Chandler Parsons, Chris Warren) or are projected first round draft picks (Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight, Jeff Taylor, Travis Leslie, Trey Thompkins). Perhaps not all of those players will go pro, but Harris would certainly be in the conversation as the league's best player assuming even the slightest maturation from his freshman to sophomore season. He could move from the end of the first round to the lottery, and do so in a year with (hopefully) no labor issues in the NBA. I have no illusions about this kid sticking around four years, but one more wouldn't be total insanity.
However, this December 7 story from Luke Winn shows just how careful the Harris family was in choosing Tennessee. Tobias is in Knoxville in large part because of the way Bruce Pearl used Tyler Smith: a point forward in a flex offense, able to create in a number of ways from the four spot. From day one, Tobias had the green light to go coast-to-coast after grabbing a defensive rebound, something he did with great success all year. He has a better skill set off the bounce than in the post right now, which certainly can't hurt a guy who will be a 3/4 tweener in the NBA.
So the most important question for Cuonzo Martin as it relates to Tobias is how he would use him in his offense. Martin's teams send everybody to the glass - this year Missouri State had three players who averaged at least 11 points and 6 rebounds - which limits their opportunities in transition. This is not to say that Tobias couldn't build a more impressive set of post moves and become a better defender with another year in Knoxville, and thus improve his draft stock, but the player he specifically came to Tennessee to be is almost certainly a better fit in Bruce Pearl's system than Cuonzo Martin's.
And Tobias may have gone pro if Bruce Pearl never told a lie. He should join C.J. Watson as an NBA contributor, and has enough upside to become a more productive player than Watson in the league, where he could again follow in Allan Houston's footsteps and become a guy who does enough to make Vol fans follow him. If he feels good about his chances in the first round, I wouldn't hold it against him to turn pro.
I wouldn't hold it against Hopson either given the coaching change, but his situation is more risky. There is no guaranteed money in the second round, and it seems unlikely that Hopson will jump into the first round. The things he will do well in workouts are things you can see on film: his raw athleticism, his ability to take over a game at times, and the fact that he can score both at the rim and from beyond the arc. He averaged 17 points and shot 37.6% from beyond the arc this year, and put several defenders on a poster down the stretch. His performance in the Pittsburgh game is as good as anyone not named Jimmer or Kemba had against a great team this season.
But just when we thought he had turned the corner for good after his ankle injury, with 23.6 points in a six game stretch, the old inconsistent Hopson appeared again: 2 of 10 shooting in the home finale against Kentucky, and though he played well with 19 points in the SEC Tournament game against Florida, that game was bookended by 8 points against Arkansas, and a total disappearing act in the NCAA Tournament game against Michigan. Granted, he wasn't the only Vol to struggle against the Wolverines and you can certainly credit some of that to the issues with Pearl...but it wasn't the last impression he wanted to leave for NBA scouts, or on his Tennessee career.
So Hopson can't say definitively that his inconsistency is behind him, nor will he be able to prove that he is mature enough to not let his emotions get the best of him. While I can't see his overall game improving as much as Tobias' might with another year in Knoxville, under Martin he could have the opportunity to add some additional stuff to his game...and if he matures in the offseason (something he's done every year) and comes back to Tennessee, perhaps he can remove inconsistency and immaturity from the equation this time next year.
While the Vols' offense was really hurt by the lack of a point guard who could create and facilitate, it's also true that Hopson and Harris never really made each other better. Buried in the postgame comments after the Michigan loss was Bruce Pearl saying just as much, that the two "never gelled". Maybe both will come back and Chris Jones will show up, and all of our problems will be solved.
But getting just one of Hopson or Harris to stick around would be monumentally huge for Cuonzo Martin.
I think it'll take a small miracle for Harris to come back. He's good enough right now to be a late first rounder, and it won't be hard at all for him to talk himself into the idea that a team in the middle of the first round will see his upside and pull the trigger on him. I don't think he can hurt himself by coming back - he'll mature and improve, and can add some post presence. But the specific reasons he came to the University of Tennessee are gone, and they were so specific and he's so close to the NBA I'm not sure he'll want to come back.
Hopson, on the other hand, is a different story. For a kid who went to the Elite Eight as a sophomore, this wasn't the ending he wanted on his Tennessee career. I don't know how much he'll value something like this, but if he goes pro he leaves Tennessee as a talented kid who played third fiddle on the Vols' best ever team, and whose very best games will be forgotten because this year's team went 3-3 during his six game tear at the end of the year.
Or, he could stay, mature as a senior under a new coach who might be able to push his best buttons, and could play as the number one scoring option with a point guard capable of creating opportunities for him. There are lots of if's in that equation, but I think the chances of Hopson coming back are much higher, and he would benefit more playing under Martin than Tobias.
Finally, a point of great importance: the Vols were scheduled to make an overseas trip this summer. The NCAA allows teams to spend a summer playing overseas once every four years; the Vols last went in 2007, preceding their 2008 SEC Championship. If you're Cuonzo Martin, you can't believe your luck: you get to take your brand new team out for a test run in games that don't count but do matter. Imagine the growth and team building that could happen with this team overseas, and imagine the jump-start it would give all the players in the new system.
But Martin mentioned that if the Vols have only seven players - which is where we'd be if UT goes 0 for 4 on Hopson, Harris, Jones, and Ware - the trip may not be worth the effort. It's worth noting that Martin played a glorified seven man rotation at Missouri State this year, but Martin may also bring in additional players that are not on our radar right now that impact the makeup of the 2011-12 team. If it's me, I go overseas with whoever I've got just to have a chance to get a jump start. But clearly, going overseas with Hopson and/or Harris would be a huge, huge bonus, especially if it's the difference in going overseas and not going at all.
It's Cunozo Martin's job to keep Tennessee Basketball moving forward. He may be able to do so eventually, but if he wants to do so immediately he needs at least one of Hopson and Harris. Even if the Vols go 0 for 4 on the questionable players, we should be understanding - it would be respectable for the Vols to let Jones and Ware out of their scholarships if they so desire after meeting Martin, and both Harris and Hopson are good enough to give serious consideration to the draft right now.
But anything Martin can do to keep any or all of these guys around would be huge for the program. Given the circumstances it's not really fair to say he could fail this first test...but every one of the four he passes it with will go down as his first success(es) as our head coach.