The Vols were picked to finish fourth in the SEC in the preseason poll. Tennessee is also receiving votes in both polls to the tune of mid-30s. If the polls translated into NCAA Tournament seeds (which they never do), you're talking about the Vols on the 8/9 line.
On the most basic level, improvement for the 2013 Vols is simple: the next step for a one seed in the NIT is obviously to make the NCAA Tournament. And historically speaking, making the NCAA Tournament would still be a big deal for Tennessee's basketball program. The Vols have danced just 19 times in their history.
But when you've danced 10 of the last 15 years, including six straight under Bruce Pearl, it gets thankfully familiar. And because Pearl's teams were able to do much more than just dance - three Sweet 16s and three East Division titles before we even get into the heavy stuff - just making the tournament feels like the bar is set too low for a team with so much coming back.
College basketball is a cruel game once the calendar hits March, because though 68 will dance only one will get to win its last game. As a result, you have to find other things to celebrate and other ways to define success or you'll always be unhappy. The division title is no longer an option in the SEC, but what it earned you is still on the table: the top four teams in the new 14 team SEC still earn byes in the SEC Tournament (in this case, a double bye with the bottom four teams having to play on Wednesday). This is an excellent goal for Tennessee at minimum.
My personal stance before the Pearl Era went sideways was that the Sweet 16 was now the best goal for this program. We won so much you couldn't just be satisfied with making the tournament every year, but we've still never been to a Final Four. I felt like Tennessee was at a place where it could reasonably expect to be playing on the second weekend of the tournament every season - that Tennessee was a Top 15 basketball program nationally.
And under Cuonzo Martin, I very much believe Tennessee can get there. It doesn't have to be this year; I'm not about to call Cuonzo a failure if they don't make the Sweet 16. But it is something to shoot for, something to show that this program hasn't taken any steps back.
To get there, here's what the Vols will have to go through:
After opening with Kennesaw State next Friday night in Knoxville, the Vols go to Puerto Rico. They'll get UNC-Asheville in the opening round, then either Oklahoma State (receiving one fewer vote than we are in the AP poll) or Akron in round two. The big prize here is NC State, ranked sixth in both polls coming into the year. If we do happen to end up on the bubble again, it's worth noting that it would be a huge boost to our RPI just to play the Wolfpack. And should the Vols beat them (the clear favorites on the other side of the bracket, which includes Penn State, Providence, and UMass), it's instant credibility.
From there the schedule sets up as a nice slow burn. The Vols (thankfully) finish their series with Oakland in Knoxville on the other side of Puerto Rico, travel to Georgetown (SEC/Big East Invitational) and Virginia, and host Wichita State and Xavier before the new year. Tennessee will be tested, to be sure, but may very well be the best team on the floor each of these nights.
When the calendar hits 2013, it gets real: the Vols host Memphis on January 4 in what could be the final meeting of this series for the foreseeable future, as Tiger High is headed off to the Big East with its tail between its legs. With SEC play coming right after that, it's an important transition game, and if the rivalry is going away since Memphis is scared to play us because they might give us a recruiting advantage we clearly don't need to take the best players from their city...let's make sure we win the last one.
To recap: it's now an 18 game schedule, featuring an annual home-and-home rival (Vanderbilt), four rotating home-and-home opponents, and the rest we'll see once a year. This season the Vols have Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, and Ole Miss as home-and-home opponents. And of the teams we'll only see once a year, the best two non-Kentucky options both come to Knoxville late in the year: #10 Florida on February 26, and #15 Missouri in the season finale on March 9. The SEC Tournament is in Nashville.
The common assumption is there is a clear gap between the top four teams in the SEC and the rest of the league. This is not to say teams like Alabama and Arkansas won't make the NCAA Tournament. But Vanderbilt is totally rebuilding (...which is what they were all saying about us this time last year), Texas A&M was 4-14 in the Big 12 last year, and Mississippi State is starting over with Rick Ray instead of Rick Stansbury. There aren't as many usual suspects this season.
In Gainesville, Florida returns just about everything except Bradley Beal and Erving Walker. This is Kenny Boynton's team now, with Patric Young and Erik Murphy still prowling around down low. The Gators have made the Elite Eight two years in a row. At Missouri, point guard Phil Pressey is the SEC's preseason player of the year and will certainly challenge Trae Golden as the best in the league. The Tigers are intriguing because they brought in a ton of transfer talent, including UConn's Alex Oriakhi.
And then there's Kentucky. The names of note this year: Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, and Archie Goodwin. Noel has the most sizzle coming in from name recognition and the fact that he shaved the logo into the back of his head, and he had a 17/11 in their exhibition tonight. But Goodwin led the way with 22 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 blocks. Our friends at A Sea of Blue are talking about butterflies and metamorphosis and whatnot.
Kentucky is the favorite because that's what John Calipari has built up there, so while there will always be a part of me this time every November that says, "Not until I see it," you certainly can't deny the talent nor what Calipari has done with it recently. Tennessee has had Florida's number for seven years, and I hope that trend can continue - we just matched up with them so well, both of our wins weren't really close, and all of our pieces return. Missouri will be a brand new experience, but we'll have a good idea where we both stand by the time we see them.
Even more this season, the SEC will be a marathon. Cuonzo got his guys to play consistent, winning basketball every night last year in league play; if Tennessee continues to bring that effort every night, the Vols should be good enough to make the media right and earn a double bye in the SEC Tournament. And unless Kentucky is otherworldly again, this Tennessee team can have a chance to truly compete for an SEC Championship.
That's a dream goal, and would always make for a good season in a league with UK in it. But we're also interested in Tennessee's eventual seed in the NCAA Tournament. Pearl's teams (seeded 2, 5, 2, 9, 6, 9 respectively) played their way to advantageous seeds more often than not. If making the Sweet 16 is your program goal, you want to stay north of a 7 seed to stay away from the truly elite teams in the nation in the first two rounds. Again, the polls never relate directly, but one way to look at being a 6 seed or better is to get in the Top 25 and stay there.
How do you define success this season? If this Tennessee team becomes one of the truly elite teams in the nation, great. For now, we want to compete for the league title, dance on a respectable seed line, and then keep dancing. We have a foundation for what this team can do. In their second year with Cuonzo, we'll see how far they can go, and I truly believe we're going to have a real chance to win every single night.