When's the last time you had true confidence in a Tennessee team coming into the season?
Hope is usually present when we're this close to the season, "this close" being ten days for basketball. We hoped the Clawfense would be good. We hoped this would be the year for Derek Dooley. And for each of the last four Tennessee Basketball seasons, we have hoped in preseason. We hoped they could survive without Chris Lofton. We hoped a team that probably underachieved in 2009 could put it all together in 2010 (and they did). We hoped Bruce Pearl's suspension wouldn't get in the way. And we hoped Cuonzo Martin could keep us afloat.
But confidence? True confidence? You have to go all the way back to the 2007-08 basketball squad to find a team that had earned our confidence coming into the season. And thanks to Cuonzo Martin doing way, way more than keeping us afloat, Tennessee Basketball enters the 2012-13 season full of confidence. They may not have the preseason ranking or the career win total that Bruce Pearl's teams carried into every November after his first one. But they have the experience and the talent to return to the standards that Pearl set...and hopefully, give themselves a chance to exceed them.
This Tennessee team is going to be good. And you're going to love watching them play.
To Recap: How We Got Here
Bruce Pearl was so good, the assumption was it would take a long time to recover from his sudden absence and the loss of two underclassmen and two potential signees that followed. Without Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris, the Vols trotted out a lineup consisting of career backups and senior Cameron Tatum. We had no real expectations of Cuonzo's first team, and though two close losses to Duke and Memphis in Maui threatened to change that, an ugly December stretch of losses led to a 7-7 start before SEC play even began. Nevermind the NCAA Tournament, the NIT seemed like a stretch.
But then Cuonzo Martin signed Jarnell Stokes, who was eligible to join the Vols in January. That move paid dividends present and future, but even more importantly, the Vols opened SEC play by stunning Florida in Knoxville in a blowout before Stokes took the floor. Seemingly overnight, the Vols bought in to Cuonzo's defense-first style. The Vols would lose three straight heartbreakers from there, including a near miss against the eventual National Champions from Kentucky. But as Stokes got involved, Tennessee started winning. The Vols beat UConn in Knoxville, then got blown out in Nashville and Lexington.
And then Tennessee started winning every night. The Vols won eight of their next nine, moving from 10-12 (2-5) to 18-13. Tennessee won at Florida to complete the season sweep. They handled inferior competition with five wins of nine or more points during that run. And they finished it off with a huge gut check overtime performance in Baton Rouge and a senior day win in Knoxville over Vanderbilt. That left Tennessee at 10-6 in conference. The team picked to finish eleventh in the preseason poll came in second.
An overtime loss to Ole Miss in the second round of the SEC Tournament burst the bubble the Vols never thought they would have. Tennessee was a one seed in the NIT and advanced to the second round before bowing out to MTSU 71-64. It was a tremendous effort for Cuonzo Martin in his first season, and the last two losses highlighted the biggest improvement this team must make:
Offense With Defense
Cuonzo put his fingerprints on this team and made a group of guys who came to Knoxville to play one style of basketball believe in another way to win: full-effort, in your shorts defense. And it worked: in SEC play the Vols were third in the league in PPG allowed and trailed only Kentucky in FG% Defense. With everyone but Cameron Tatum back among meaningful contributors last season, the Vols should be even better defensively this season.
Where they have to be better is on the other end. There were several nights last season - most notably in an overtime loss at Georgia and in the final two losses of the year - when the defense played exceptionally well and it wasn't enough because the offense completely disappeared for several minutes at a time. Against Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament the Vols didn't hit a shot from the 13:05 mark until the 5:30 mark. Then the Vols made no shots from Trae Golden's jumper at 4:06 until Skylar McBee banked in the three that sent the game to overtime. So before McBee at the buzzer, Tennessee hit three shots in the final thirteen minutes.
Against MTSU in the NIT, Jordan McRae hit a layup to put the Vols up 64-56 with 7:12 to play. Tennessee did not score again.
Obviously this has to change for the Vols to get where they want to go. As long as the effort we saw last year in league play returns to the floor, and under Cuonzo I have no doubts about that, Tennessee is going to defend well enough to give themselves a chance to win every night. It's the offense that has to improve; the Vols can't completely disappear and go from media timeout to media timeout without scoring. But not only have the Vols had a full offseason to implement Cuonzo's motion offense, but the return of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon in the paint gives Tennessee more bang than anyone else's buck in the league can afford. Maymon will miss the early part of the year as he continues to deal with knee issues, and that's something that we'll have to keep an eye on all season.
But when these Vols are at full strength, they're equipped with one of the league's best point guards in Trae Golden, a bullseye shooter in Skylar McBee, a guy who can get his own shot in Jordan McRae, and the Maymon/Stokes combo of death down low. And that's before we even get to the wealth of experience coming off the bench.
It ain't the sexiest lineup, and in fact it's probably the opposite. We're the one you don't want to see coming at you every single night. Teams should have less fun playing Tennessee than just about anyone else on their schedule. And truly, Tennessee is going to have a chance to win every single game they play with this defense and these players.
We'll look later in the week at each player individually and the schedule ahead. But with so much turmoil, uncertainty, and depression on the football side of things, it'll be really good to see these guys in just ten days. This is a team, a coach, and a program you can believe in.