Last year the Vols got a ton of mileage out of their win over Pittsburgh. Against an even more difficult schedule this season, one upset could do wonders for Cuonzo Martin's first season.
It's interesting to me that we used to hear Bruce Pearl talk about his power and influence on the basketball schedule all the time, and yet just two days ago we heard Derek Dooley say he wasn't in charge of the football schedule. Maybe they both had the same amount of influence over their respective schedules and just said it differently, or maybe the athletic director has more say so over the non-conference games in football because there's so much money involved.
Either way, UT's 2011-12 basketball schedule is Pearl's last "gift" to the program: a truly elite schedule for a team that is, according to all observers and prognosticators, no longer truly elite. The Vols worked for six years to get the sort of opportunities you see on this schedule, including a trip to Maui and a home date with the defending National Champions. Whether or not Cuonzo Martin will continue Pearl's aggressive scheduling policy is yet to be seen, but a lot of that will also have to do with how good the product becomes under Martin. Kansas, Ohio State, UConn, and others aren't playing home-and-homes with everybody - they scheduled the Vols for a reason.
But against this schedule, the product has an even steeper climb in front of it just to stay on the national radar. Basketball programs fall off the map much quicker than their football counterparts, because a few players graduating or leaving early for the pros makes a much bigger impact than the same few players leaving school in football. So this year we get the triple threat of new coach, four starters gone, and now this schedule.
It's unfair to assume that just because Bruce Pearl had a once-in-a-lifetime first year in Knoxville that Cuonzo Martin could do the same. But it's also unfair to assume that the Vols are going to get blown out every night. We've said from the moment the 2011-12 roster became finalized (as in, the moment we knew we were going to be without Scotty Hopson, Tobias Harris, Chris Jones, and Kevin Ware) that there's a big difference in the sort of rebuilding where you're getting crushed twice a week, and rebuilding where you compete. The Vols need to be about the latter, and have enough talent to do so. A team that's getting routinely drilled will crush present hope and future interest among many who became Tennessee Basketball fans under Pearl's watch. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and unless Cuonzo also has the magic touch (because I'm pretty sure he doesn't have an NBA point guard or Chris Lofton), this isn't the team or the schedule that's going to produce a good one.
However, this is exactly the sort of schedule that's going to produce the same robust strength of schedule rating the Vols have enjoyed every year under Pearl (in chronological order, UT's national SOS rating in Pearl's six years was 6, 5, 1, 3, 19, 2). RPI can be manipulated and Pearl was very good at it; this is why UT's 2009 and 2011 teams made the field easily despite what some ('09) or most ('11) considered to be poor regular seasons.
I'm not at all suggesting that Tennessee is going to make the NCAA Tournament, nor should anyone. Even if you're an eternal and idiotic optimist like myself, that sort of expectation is unfair to this coaching staff. What I am saying, however, is that against this schedule, it wouldn't take much to throw a high RPI number out there. If the Vols could win all of the games they're supposed to win and just find even one upset in the non-conference, what sort of conference record would it take to get in the bubble conversation? Would 8-8 do it?
Mike Griffith, who, you know, is a little more level-headed about such things than I am, broke down UT's schedule yesterday. Of UT's 31 regular season games, he lists only 11 as probable wins, with 13 probable losses and 8 50/50 games (including the first round of the SEC Tournament). If he's right on the money and the Vols split the 50-50 games, that would put UT at 15-17, assuming they lost the first SEC Tournament game and stopped playing. If you're looking for a good goal for Martin's first team, it's the NIT - and to get there, you need to be .500. So an average assessment of UT's chances has them in the neighborhood of .500.
How much above average could this team possibly be?
Giants in the Land
The big fish in the non-conference are as follows:
- Duke (Maui) - Nov 21
- Memphis or Michigan (Maui) - Nov 22
- Pittsburgh - Dec 3
- at Memphis - Jan 4
- UConn - Jan 21
- Jan 4 - at Memphis
- Jan 7 - vs Florida
- Jan 12 - at Mississippi State
- Jan 14 - vs Kentucky
- Jan 18 - at Georgia
- Jan 21 - vs UConn
- Jan 24 - at Vanderbilt