From day one, Cuonzo Martin's immediate success depended on how many of Scotty Hopson, Tobias Harris, Chris Jones, and Kevin Ware he could get to wear orange next season. Go 4-4, and the Vols could go right back to their 2010, pre-Pearl-drama form. Go 0-4, and you're officially rebuilding. And any one would've made a difference.
But with Kevin Ware bouncing around in mid-major land and surrounded by recruiting scandals, Chris Jones headed to junior college, and Scotty and Tobias off to the NBA, the Tennessee Basketball program will be forced to adjust its expectations for at least one season, and probably more.
I don't think it's fair to blame Cuonzo for any of this - Ware looks like he was never worth the trouble, Jones is responsible for his own grades, Tobias appears to have made the right decision and Scotty appears to have made the only decision he's been planning on making for the last year. But even if most agree not to blame Martin right now, if/when the 2011-12 season goes differently than the last six, you have to wonder how much patience the Vol Basketball fanbase will have.
But, we have to move forward. Pending any additional late signees, the Vols will have seven returning scholarship players and three freshmen. If Renaldo Woolridge is granted a redshirt for last season, Cameron Tatum will be the Vols' only senior. It goes without saying that Martin has to do a good job with the class of 2012 in recruiting. But it's also true that the future of Tennessee Basketball will start with the underclassmen on the current roster.
So without our two best players and any highly-touted freshmen, what will the Vols look like in Cuonzo's first season? Here are a few key questions, for next year and beyond...as always, we welcome your thoughts on these as well...
Is Trae Golden the longterm answer at point guard?
The sophomore-to-be may not be a natural point guard, but he did have a 2.16 assist/turnover ratio as Melvin Goins' backup last season. If Cuonzo Martin trusts Golden, he could run the show for the next three years; the Vols haven't had any longterm stability at point guard since C.J. Watson graduated in 2006. Wes Washpun's signing suggests Skylar McBee may not be an option at the one again, which is probably for the best.
I didn't watch enough Missouri State Basketball to know this for sure, but statistically speaking Martin's teams made assists everyone's business, not just the point guard's. And we know he'll emphasize not turning the ball over. So can Trae Golden play that role well enough in Cuonzo's system, or will the Vols make point guard a primary emphasis in the next recruiting class (if Chris Jones never makes his way to campus)?
Does this team have a primary scorer?
This, of course, factors in to Golden's assist numbers.
Cameron Tatum has shown flashes of greatness and frustration in his career. There was a time when he was outplaying J.P. Prince and everyone thought he should get more minutes. And there was a more recent time when he suddenly couldn't throw it in the ocean and failed to become a third scoring option, let alone the primary one. Though he is the team's leading returning scorer, there are also plenty of reasons to question his ability to carry that burden every night.
If defense is the emphasis, the Vols could ugly it up real good and hope to win games in the 50s. If that's the case it's less important for one player to excel on the offensive end, but more important for everyone to contribute. Either way, Tennessee is clearly going to have to have more points from Skylar McBee, Trae Golden, or their freshman equivalents.
Can Kenny Hall and/or Jordan McRae suddenly arrive?
They are the Vols' two most talented young players, and neither has seen the floor enough for us to make any real judgment on them. Hall will have to play, and play a bunch of minutes (if the Vols don't sign another big man), so he'll certainly have an opportunity to play to his potential. McRae couldn't find the floor this year, in part because of his defense - which Martin will also stress - but right now, if you were projecting a starting five, he'd probably be in it. Even more than Hall, we have no idea what this kid can do, and it's exceptionally unfair to say things like, "Maybe he could be the primary scorer!" So let's just say that any good we get from our redshirt freshman would be greatly appreciated. Hall and McRae, to me, are the difference between the sort of rebuilding year where the Vols just get hammered, and the sort of rebuilding year where the Vols can still compete.
What becomes of Swiperboy?
He'll play, for sure. But if the Vols don't bring in another body, he'll almost certainly be stuck playing the four, and that hasn't worked out well in the past.
We've seen much more of Woolridge than we have of Hall and McRae. The Vols don't beat Kansas without him. But he's a guy that has to pick a lane: is he a shooter? (probably not) Is he going to post up on the block at the four? Does he have enough offensive skill to create his own shot?
Everybody is dying to love Woolridge for something other than his music and his personality. He'll get a chance to earn that love this season one way or another, I'm just not exactly sure what it's going to look like.
Can Jeronne Maymon stop fouling so much?
This is not a laughing matter.
Will these Vols buy in to Cuonzo?
Despite the lowered expectations that none of these guys came here to play for and the new coaching staff, I think these Vols will rely on so many new faces who couldn't, for whatever reason, find the floor under Pearl, that Cuonzo won't have a problem getting his guys to play hard. And because the Vols are so young, you don't have to worry about a bunch of seniors quitting on the new coach.
I think Martin's Vols will play with heart and effort that we can and will appreciate. And we should know how much fun it is to cheer for the underdog; against this schedule, that'll happen more often than not.
As fans, we've just experienced Derek Dooley's first team forcing us to redefine success - not forever, just as a first step in a process - and still found a way to be proud of that team, enjoy the wins they were able to accomplish, and view them as a good first step for Dooley's larger work. The same dynamic will be at work here, only more difficult because Cuonzo Martin replaced Bruce Pearl, not Lane Kiffin. But for our new basketball coach and his first team, I still think the NIT is a great goal. Whatever they become, it'll be something new...and even without Scotty and Tobias, it can still become a good foundation for the future that Cuonzo Martin wants to build.