Tonight the Vols will face Western Carolina in the tenth game of the 2012-13 season. That means we're a third of the way through the regular season; only two non-conference games remain after this one, with SEC play set to go starting January 9. This is the last breath of fresh air before Xavier and Memphis and conference play, and I'm not real sure I'd call it that: Western Carolina is 4-7 but put a scare in #13 Illinois two weeks ago in a 72-64 loss, and scored almost twice as many points as we did against #15 Georgetown in an 81-68 loss.
It's a game Tennessee should win, but the things we thought we knew about this team have changed. Jarnell Stokes, believed to be on the cusp of lottery land with us merely thankful he had to come back for his sophomore season, has struggled against stiff competition when the opposition makes it their business to double and triple team him. Stokes still averages 11.9 points and 7.7 rebounds in 27.2 minutes on the whole this year, but in big games? 7/4 against Oklahoma State, 4/9 at Georgetown, 5/9 at Virginia, 6/7 vs Wichita State.
I still think we're all in agreement the primary reason Stokes is struggling is the other perception that's changed about this basketball team: if Jeronne Maymon isn't on the floor, this is a different basketball team.
Our senior leader hasn't stepped foot on the floor this season, still recovering from offseason knee surgery and a nasty infection that has followed. At first it was a couple weeks. Then "December". Then before SEC play. But every day that passes leads us to ask louder and louder if he's coming back at all this season. And this week, Cuonzo Martin heard us and responded to Knoxville News-Sentinel basketball writer Brendan Quinn:
Cuonzo Martin said he will sit down with Jeronne Maymon and team doctors in January, decide on 2012-13 Statius. Redshirt is a possibility.— Brendan F. Quinn (@BFQuinn) December 20, 2012
Cuonzo Martin said he and Jeronne Maymon have discussed a medical redshirt and Maymon is open to it.— Brendan F. Quinn (@BFQuinn) December 20, 2012
Martin said if it came down to Maymon returning for just the last month of season, he'd hold him back. "I wouldn't do that to Jeromne."— Brendan F. Quinn (@BFQuinn) December 20, 2012
You can read the entire story from KNS here. This is the first time I've seen Cuonzo comment to this degree publicly and use the word "redshirt", which means we're coming up on a deadline sooner rather than later. At some point the Vols and Maymon have to decide if he can help them this season, for how long and at what percentage. Cuonzo hasn't named a date; "January" could mean before SEC play or could mean seven games into it. But a decision must be made soon, and will and should have more to do with Maymon than UT's record at the time. And if you believe in the tea leaves, I think they look like and smell like a redshirt.
If you combine another year of Maymon with the growing realization that Stokes might in fact need another year of ball in Knoxville, it does create potential excitement for a lineup that includes both next season plus incoming five-star signee Robert Hubbs playing alongside seniors Trae Golden and Jordan McRae. Remove Maymon and the only seniors on the current roster are Skylar McBee and Kenny Hall. So the Vols could be even better next season if all those pieces are in play. But there are a lot of ifs and a lot of distance between now and then, especially with two-third of this season and all of conference play left to go. Around here we like to live in the moment.
And in the present, it's bad news for Maymon and bad news for Tennessee. The less likely it becomes that Maymon is walking through that door this season, the more likely Tennessee will have to find new ways to score the basketball against good teams if they want to make the NCAA Tournament.
The Vol defense has been as good as advertised and expected: the Vols are 33rd nationally in points allowed at 57.9 per game, 69th nationally in FG% defense at 39.2%, 38th nationally in effective FG% defense at 43.0%, and 101st nationally in points per possession allowed at 0.93. Remember, there are 347 teams in Division 1 basketball (is that what we still call it in basketball?).
But the offense...well, I mean, you've seen us. The Vols failed to crack 40 at Georgetown and Virginia and failed to crack 50 against Oklahoma State. The win over formerly undefeated Wichita State last week was huge, no doubt, and the Vols landed 69 points against the Shockers. But Tennessee also shot 36 free throws in that game, and that ain't coming around every night.
The good news is, the Vols still did both of those things without much of any production from Stokes, plagued by foul trouble. The Vols are 42nd nationally in FT Rate, one of the Four Factors, which means the Vols get to the line exceptionally well per shot attempt. This is by far the best way for Tennessee to proceed with or without Maymon, playing against man or zone: don't settle for threes, attack the rim and get to the line.
What's the ceiling for this team this year without Maymon? No one really knows. The win over Wichita was a very, very welcome sight; I have to believe Stokes won't play that poorly and the coaching staff won't allow the offense to be so stagnant the rest of the way in. The schedule is a blessing and a curse; while the road thus far has been harder than we thought it would be with tougher-than-advertised games against Oklahoma State, Georgetown, and Wichita, the part we were dreading looks less so now: Xavier is 7-3 but did lose to Pacific and our rebuilding friends in Nashville, Memphis is 6-3 and their biggest win is over Northern Iowa, and what was already believed to be a top-heavy SEC has looked a little sluggish: Missouri is 9-1 but untested other than the Louisville loss (getting ready to change with games against Illinois and UCLA next week), Florida is 8-1 but their biggest win over Wisconsin doesn't look as good as it did at the time with the Badgers at 7-4, and this isn't your older brother's Kentucky team just yet.
It's a grind after tonight, and Cuonzo proved he could handle that last season when the Vols caught fire in SEC play. Every win will be precious, as Bruce Pearl used to say, and the Vols still have plenty of defense and enough talent and experience to win enough to go dancing. It won't look like exactly what we'd hoped with Maymon, though it may look even better next year. But we're still not fully sure exactly how it's going to look at all this year. It's on Jarnell Stokes to step up, knowing he's by himself in there now, and on Cuonzo Martin to figure out how to get the most out of his available talent on the offensive end. As was the case last year, the Vols defend well enough to give themselves a chance to win every night. If we can keep getting to the free throw line and stay north of 40 point efforts, I think we'll still be there in the end. But for a team with so much of its identity wrapped up in Maymon, we're getting close to a time when these guys have to figure it out on their own, and see if it's still pretty enough to go dancing by March.