Rebuilt, reloaded, re-tooled, whatever. It took Cuonzo Martin one season to put his fingerprints on the Tennessee Basketball program, and we enter his second season with the same expectations we carried under Bruce Pearl's watch. Basketball season is here, and not a moment too soon in Knoxville.
We begin tonight with Kennesaw State of the Atlantic Sun. I'm sure someone has an explanation for how this matchup came about on a non-conference schedule that includes none of our familiar in-state foes (non-Tiger High division). Instead of the likes of ETSU or Chattanooga, we get the Owls: 3-28 last year, RPI 330 out of 344, and riding a 19 game losing streak. Let's do this!
I think we can handle the matchups tonight and the keys to victory should be something just north of "show up", so here's what we're watching for this evening:
1. Who steps up in the absence of Jeronne Maymon?
Kenny Hall should earn the start next to Jarnell Stokes on the block, beginning his senior season with one last chance to stay out of the doghouse. All signs point to Maymon staying in street clothes in Puerto Rico next week, which means we're just one opening round game against UNC-Asheville away from needing Hall to produce in a big game, and potentially needing him to produce against #6 NC State. We've seen him play well before, so a big night from #20 wouldn't be that surprising. But you'd hate to see him come out of the gate struggling and do anything to play his way out of Cuonzo's good graces.
Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Quinton Chievous playing the 4 when Stokes or Yemi are also in the game. He led the Vols in scoring (tied with Jordan McRae) and rebounding in the exhibition win over Victory University, whatever that's worth. And he's got an inside-out dimension that could be very exciting.
2. How much has Josh Richardson's game improved?
If the starting lineup from the exhibition holds, McRae will stay in the sixth man role he played when Cameron Tatum was in the starting lineup last season, and Josh Richardson will get the start. Richardson is one of the team's best defenders, so it's no surprise to see him with the first five under Cuonzo. But if he's added more of a scoring dimension to his game entering his sophomore season, he'll be almost impossible to keep off the floor. Along those lines...
3. What's the distribution of minutes on the perimeter?
Skylar McBee, Josh Richardson, Jordan McRae, D'Montre Edwards, and perhaps a dose of Quinton Chievous at the 3. That's five guys to fill two spots. The guys we've seen before are all very different players to begin with. This will be our first real taste of Edwards and Chievous, and I'm eager to see what they've got. Tonight won't be the tell-all given the quality of the competition. And because of their different skill sets, perhaps Cuonzo will go all year switching back and forth and tinkering with different rotations for each opponent. But as we begin, I'll be eager to see how early and how often Cuonzo gets the new faces in with the old.
4. What can Armani Moore do as the backup point guard?
The other new face this season, Moore will relieve Trae Golden and hopefully cut down on his 32+ minutes per game from last season. Moore had 11 in the exhibition and at 6'5" will be a different kind of player than Golden to be sure. We don't need him to be outstanding and barring injury or foul trouble he probably won't be on the floor in crunch time any this season. But we will need him to keep things flowing offensively and to help avoid the flat lines that crushed UT at the end of the season last year. To that point:
5. Will we see an offense that doesn't stall and doesn't always rely on threes?
Last year Tennessee averaged more than 19 threes attempted per game. There are some good shooters on this team, no doubt, but it was often times the bail out when the shot clock was winding down because we had no flow offensively. The Vols took 21 (and made 9) in the exhibition game. Cuonzo is fond of saying, "Shots come and go," and usually that's right. His idea is if you're playing defense well, and we do, then you're always going to have a chance to be in any game. But I think we all expect to see an offense with a little more purpose this season. 7+ minute scoring droughts effectively ended Tennessee's season in SEC Tournament and NIT play last March. Now in year two of Cuonzo's motion offense, rain should come quicker this season. Again: this team was 3-28 last year and we're not going to have any great revelations tonight. But I don't want to see 25-30 threes because we got lazy or were ineffective with our basic stuff, even without Maymon. Move the ball with a purpose, get good shots early and late in the clock, and don't just rely solely on your defense (and tonight, your talent advantage) and hope the shots go down.
7:00 PM ET - Fox Sports South. We'll have the live thread up for you to comment along as always. Really looking forward to sharing this season together on RTT as always, and very excited that it could be a really good one. Go Vols.