While Jarnell Stokes may lead the way in preseason hype, it's the sum of Tennessee's parts that should combine to make an incredible whole.
The Vols have two players on NBA rosters as the league begins its play this week: C.J. Watson has moved to Brooklyn to back up Deron Williams, and Tobias Harris should see more playing time in his second season in Milwaukee. The bulk of Tennessee's most recent basketball success was built without NBA talent: Bruce Pearl's three Sweet 16 squads featured neither Watson or Tobias, but were instead built around a strong nucleus of upperclassman leadership: Dane Bradshaw, Chris Lofton, and JaJuan Smith, then Wayne Chism, J.P. Prince, and Bobby Maze.
Jarnell Stokes certainly appears to be an NBA talent, but these Vols are much deeper than just #5. As we saw last year and will see again this year, Tennessee is much better than just The Size 20 Show. UT's pieces are heavily experienced and are now entering their second season playing the roles Cuonzo Martin designed for them. The team must replace Cameron Tatum, who became a jack of all trades last season. But each of his trades can be handled by a number of different faces this time around, and the entire unit has the experience only he brought to the table this time last year. The Vols' starting lineup is loaded with both talent and experience, and off the bench Tennessee will bring a wealth of experience in the post and some new faces on the perimeter.
This time last year we said two players would be more important to Cuonzo Martin's foundation than anyone else. The first was Trae Golden, who played 13 minutes a game as Melvin Goins' backup in 2011. Golden was thrust into a leadership role as a sophomore last season, and flourished early on as the team's leading scorer, putting in double digits in UT's first seven games. As the Vols were finding themselves Golden's scoring diminished, but there was also a direct correlation between Golden's offensive production and UT's winning streak: after scoring just five points in Rupp Arena, Golden hit double digits in every game the rest of the season, coinciding with UT's 8-1 run to close out the regular season. He would finish the year as UT's leading scorer at 13.6 per game, but during that run Tennessee was extraordinarily balanced in scoring both inside and out.
Golden averaged 4.5 assists per game, but must work to limit his turnovers (2.9 per). As he distributed in the offense more he made more mistakes down the stretch, including three six turnover games during UT's win streak. I'm eager to see how well he can distribute in a more fully implemented motion offense. And don't forget: last year Golden shot 38.8% from the three point line, the fifth-highest single season percentage for any Vol in the Pearl/Cuonzo Era. Golden can make a serious case for best point guard in the SEC this season, will always be a scoring/shooting option, and should have a ton of ways to distribute the ball.
However, Golden also played 32 minutes per game last year. Only 2009 Tyler Smith (32.6) averaged more during the Pearl/Cuonzo Era; C.J. Watson and Chris Lofton in 2006 are the only other Vols in the last seven years to average more than 30 per game. I'd imagine Golden will be in even better shape this season, but I also know Tennessee wants and needs to keep him healthy, and needs to prevent the offense from flat-lining when Golden has to sit.
Having tried a couple of returning players as backup point guards with limited success in the past, look for a new face to get many if not all of the backup PG action this season. 6'5" freshman Armani Moore looks to continue UT's run of good players from the state of Georgia (joining Golden, Kenny Hall, and Jordan McRae on this year's team). And there's enough chatter around sophomore walk-on Brandon Lopez from Knoxville to suggest he may get a serious look as the backup option. Neither has to be a revelation, but they'll have to defend to play for Cuonzo, and they just need to keep the offense from disappearing while Golden rests up. Who wins the backup PG minutes is one of the key questions for Tennessee this year.
The other most important player for Cuonzo's foundation was Jordan McRae. Like Golden, McRae is still just a junior even though it feels like they've already been here forever. I think the general feeling among the Tennessee program inside and out is that McRae is still nowhere near his ceiling. He's a freak athletically and does things like this from time to time. His shot betrayed him at the end of last season, going just 4 of 27 against Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Savannah State, and MTSU. But before that he too was a huge part of UT's winning streak, averaging 11 points per game as the Vols won eight of nine. You know he's playing defense if he's on the floor for Cuonzo - I'll be interested to see how much the motion offense can create for him, and how much he'll still be able to create for himself. This kid is still a weapon for us when he's on his game.
One of four seniors on this year's team, Skylar McBee is back for one last three ball. He brought more facial hair with him this time. Last season McBee hit 39.1% from the arc. For context, that's better than anything since 2007 Chris Lofton (41.9%) at this university. He's not a volume shooter like some of the old guys. McBee took 161 threes last season. Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith each took over 240 in their last two seasons. But his percentage is better than anything Juanny ever shot. I'll be curious to see how many he takes this season, and if he's developed something consistent outside of being a catch-and-shoot guy.
Sophomore Josh Richardson will almost certainly be in the mix somewhere. He might be the team's best defender, though I'm sure the Vols want him to average more than 2.9 points per game if he's playing more minutes. The intriguing pieces of the puzzle here are the new guys. Quinton Chievous is a redshirt freshman, while juco transfer D'Montre Edwards and true freshman Derek Reese are brand new to the program. The 6'7" Reese is coming off shoulder surgery, and with this many options he may end up redshirting. It's been Edwards who has made the most noise in preseason camp. You tend not to sign juco kids unless you're going to put them on the floor, so expect to see what the 6'6" wing can do sooner than later. Even if Reese redshirts and Moore plays point guard, there should be serious battles in practice for minutes at this position.
Tennessee is familiar with talented duos in the paint. We've seen Wayne Chism and Tyler Smith recently, and the C.J. Black/Isiah Victor combination might hold its own against anybody. But I'm not sure there's ever been so much muscle in the paint as what you'll see this season.
But you won't see it right away. Jeronne Maymon will start his final season in Knoxville on the bench, continuing to recover from what Cuonzo Martin will only call a "setback" following knee surgery. To a degree the point guard leads a team, and Trae Golden is good at that. And to a degree a team's best player will lead, and we'll get to Stokes in a second. But I think all of us feel like Maymon is the heart and soul of this team. He earned that place in Maui with his 32 point 20 rebound performance in the double overtime classic against Memphis. That was just one of nine double-doubles he pulled down last year. And Maymon is at his best in big games: 14/12 against Duke, 32/20 against Memphis, 15/10 vs Kentucky, 15/11 at Florida, 11/17 in the SEC Tournament against Ole Miss. Even banged up at the end of the year, he still had 17 points against MTSU.
I don't know when Maymon will return, and I know we want him at 100%. But you're going to get 100% from Maymon no matter what percentage his body will allow. I hope at the end of the season we're not having to talk about Maymon's health. We'll see.
And then there's Jarnell Stokes. Cuonzo Martin's theft of Stokes from Memphis put an end to one of, if not the worst sports years in UT history. The kid - and I use that term very loosely, because how many 18 year olds do you know that look like Stokes? - made an instant impact with 9 points in 17 minutes against, you know, Kentucky. He put a 16/12 on UConn in his third game. And he had an 11/14 against Vanderbilt in the home finale.
Here's what's interesting: most 2013 NBA Mock Drafts don't have him being taken, for now. I view this as win-win for us: this entire team is underrated, so I'm glad its best player is too. And hey, I'd be fine with them being right and having Stokes stick around for another year too. Either way, when Stokes and Maymon are on the floor together Tennessee wins the day in the post against anybody. We might see Jarnell put a few more jump shots in his game this year, and I know he needs to show that element. But I'd be just fine with us getting every rebound and him putting everything in from within five feet, because he's good enough to do that. What must improve: free throws. Stokes shot 56.9% at the stripe last season. If that doesn't improve, we'll have to deal with hack-a-Stokes more than we'd like.
Two seniors help round out the rotation in the post, and as long as Maymon is out we need production here. Kenny Hall returns for one final year, back from the suspension Cuonzo Martin placed on him that kept him out of UT's final nine games. Hall has been fond of the doghouse in years past, but especially early Tennessee needs him to be on the floor this season. Like Jordan McRae, I feel like most of us think we haven't seen him hit his ceiling yet, and 2013 would be a great time for that. Pittsburgh transfer Dwight Miller has one more year with the Vols as well, but he also had knee surgery in March and is apparently still working his way back. If he's not 100% at the start of the year, it's a huge moment for Yemi Makanjuola. The sophomore fan-favorite from Nigeria appeared in all but six of UT's games last season, making the most of his eight minutes a night with 2.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 0.4 blocks per game. We could be seeing a lot more Yemi Power if Maymon and Miller continue to need recovery time and Hall can't escape the doghouse.
One big question is what's the size of the rotation? Last year the Vols played seven guys 20+ minutes before Kenny Hall went out. Josh Richardson was a regular contributor to make eight at 16+ minutes. From there the Vols used Yemi, Miller, and Swipa in different roles to make something akin to a nine man rotation. This year's team could easily go ten, but it'll be interesting to see if Cuonzo wants to do that or not. But at full strength, there are only so many minutes in the post and on the perimeter to go around, meaning some of these names won't always see the floor. It's a great problem to have, and under Cuonzo I have no doubts about chemistry, leadership, or effort. Again: this team is going to defend their butts off, they're going to play hard, and they're going to be really fun to watch. The sum of all their parts could turn into one of the better collective teams we've seen at Tennessee.