This time last year we were celebrating in advance what we knew would be a great Tennessee Basketball team, a certainty to ease the pain of yet another disappointment in football. Tennessee lost only Cameron Tatum from a team many believed to be the first team out of the NCAA Tournament, would get a full year of Jarnell Stokes, and lurked just outside the preseason Top 25 with a great opportunity to play their way in against a tough early season schedule.
But Jeronne Maymon never took the floor, and while the Vols were learning how to win without him they lost four in the non-conference then started 0-3 in SEC play. The hole was just deep enough for another late season run to come up just short; the Vols won eight of their last nine including a 30 point beatdown of Kentucky, a four overtime affair at Texas A&M, and another big win over another highly ranked Florida team. But it was again just short, sending the Vols to another NIT bid, another good but not quite good enough campaign.
So seven months later, here we go again.
Everyone is back except Trae Golden, but the Vols replaced him with Memphis transfer Antonio Barton. We get yet another year from Jarnell Stokes, this one unexpected but quite welcome. We'll get what will for sure be the final year of Jordan McRae, who emerged in the last three months of the season to become an SEC Player of the Year candidate and a true scoring machine. And Maymon's return is perhaps the most welcome sight of all, both because it's a good story and because he brings both talent and leadership back to the floor. The rest of the team learned how to win without him, now he returns to see if this team can make the proverbial leap.
He'll be joined by a host of returning talent on a team with real live quality depth, plus five-star recruit Robert Hubbs. We know about McRae, we know about Maymon and Stokes, and we like what we see. So when we speak of making the leap, we're not just talking about making the tournament. We're talking about winning some games in March.
For Tennessee to become that kind of team, here are the biggest questions to answer:
How will Antonio Barton fit in?
Trae Golden was never a true point guard, but the team often went as he did during Cuonzo's first two years. During Tennessee's 9-2 stretch at the end of last season Golden averaged 17.7 points in the nine wins but shot a combined 2 of 17 in the regular season loss at Georgia and the SEC Tournament loss to Alabama. His dismissal for off-the-court issues relating to academics and a relationship with a tutor opened the door for Antonio Barton, who comes to the Vols for a single year of eligibility after being taken out of the rotation in Memphis in mid-February last year. His first two years with the Tigers he averaged more than 20 minutes per game scoring 8.2 and 6.6 points per contests as a freshman and sophomore. And while he's not really a true point guard either, and has far fewer assists under his belt than Golden, the kid can shoot: Barton is a career 41.6% three point shooter, a number no one on Tennessee sniffed last year (McRae led among regular contributors at 35.5%) and a percentage no Vol has shot in a single season since junior edition Chris Lofton (41.9%).
Tennessee was 11th in the SEC behind the arc last season, 31.7%, and only Kentucky and Texas A&M took fewer threes than the Vols. So it's not like all of a sudden Barton and Hubbs are here and we're going to start bombing or anything. But with McRae capable of scoring from anywhere, Barton does give Tennessee an established extra dimension on the perimeter which must be accounted for. The more defenses have to worry about him, the less they can be consumed with Stokes and Maymon on the inside, and that's more fun for everyone. This all hopefully works toward answering one of Cuonzo Martin's biggest question marks:
What is Tennessee's offensive identity?
Last year the Vols were 10th in the SEC in effective field goal percentage but still managed to be 5th in the league in points per possession. That's in part because the Volunteers lived at the free throw line, second in the league and 30th in the nation in free throw rate. (If you're new with us and unfamiliar with advanced stats for basketball, which we use a fair amount in our previews, check out this primer)
College officials are placing a bigger emphasis on physical play this year, which should mean more free throws for everyone. And Tennessee will need to make them, of course; the Vols shot 69% at the line last year, which is okay but could be better.
But so often last season, and especially against zone defenses, Tennessee's offense disappeared early in the year and turned into "Let Jordan create his own shot" late. Four times last year the Vols failed to crack 50, all losses. Cuonzo wasn't hired for his offensive genius; the 2012 Vols played sensational defense and the 2013 Vols were good in spurts. But this shouldn't be a team like the '12 Vols that needed sensational defensive efforts to give itself a chance every night. This team has balanced weapons inside and out, and the Vols need to be able to put together a fluid offense that can get points not just when it needs to late, but consistently. This team has the potential to be a good offensive club. Will they put it together?
Who is Robert Hubbs?
A 6'5" guard, Hubbs was Cuonzo's second five-star recruit after Jarnell Stokes and the second from West Tennessee. He enters as the #5 guard in the nation according to Rivals, but because of the presence of Jordan McRae and the aforementioned offensive potential, Hubbs doesn't have to be a superstar right away. But if he wants to do what he did against Florida Southern in the exhibition (7 of 12, 3 of 5 from the arc), that's cool with us.
There's been some question about minutes and the rotation. If Barton claims the point guard spot and you know McRae, Maymon and Stokes are playing, that leaves one spot for Hubbs or defensive stopper Josh Richardson. It'll be interesting to see who starts, but it'll be really interesting to see who's on the floor at the end. Maybe it'll be situational. But does Hubbs have enough punch to make a significant difference in this team this season? Other newcomers include point guard Darius Thompson, forward A.J. Davis, and center Pops Ndiaye who will compete with second year players Armani Moore, D'Montre Edwards, Derek Reese, and Quinton Chievous for playing time off the bench.
Will this team start fast for a change?
Cuonzo, Year One: 3-6 start with losses to three ranked teams and three mid-majors. Cuonzo, Year Two: 11-10 start, 3-6 SEC start, with losses to two ranked teams, four additional NCAA Tournament teams, and a smidge of Arkansas, Georgia, and Rupp Arena. Both teams finished like gangbusters, but both times it wasn't enough. The Vols played themselves into holes where perfection was required to battle back on the bubble, so while Cuonzo's Vols are 16-2 in their final nine regular season games in each of the last two years, it hasn't been enough.
The start this year offers no additional grace. The season opener? Tomorrow night at annual power Xavier, followed by a potential rematch Thanksgiving weekend in the Battle 4 Atlantis, where the Vols will face UTEP and then either the Musketeers again or Iowa, also receiving votes. The big fish in that particular pond: Andrew Wiggins and #5 Kansas, on the other side of the bracket. Then in December the Vols play at #16 Wichita State then host NC State and #24 Virginia in a span of sixteen days.
If we're doing this right, then we're not spending all of January, February, and March madly refreshing RPI websites after every single outcome, trying to make the math work to get the Vols on the dance floor. The last two years have been a terrific example of how much these early games can matter, both in dodging damaging home losses to inferior competition (Austin Peay, Year One) and finding ways to win close games on the road against great teams (Georgetown, Year Two). Both of those games could've easily been the difference, at least in RPI mindset, in the NCAAs and the NIT.
This team has a lot of momentum. It needs to play to its potential now, not grow into it along the way. All the pieces are back. We already did our growing. We can be good, immediately.
How far can this team go?
Here's the real question, the one we want to answer the same way we answered with Bruce Pearl's teams.
In the SEC the Vols are generally believed to be third best, clearly behind Kentucky (along with everyone else according to everyone else) and Florida, but clearly ahead of the rest of the field. The Cats have this year's edition of the best recruiting class in the history of basketball, etc, but as usual we'll wait to see if this one is championship good, NIT good, or somewhere in between. Florida returns Casey Prather, Patric Young, Will Yeguete along with the usual influx of talent, but we'll have to see if they've figured out a way to beat us yet with the Vols now 11-5 against Florida since 2005, 11-2 in years that don't involve a Bruce Pearl Timeline. And we get to play them twice this year.
Around the rest of the league, Alabama returns Trevor Releford and Nick Jacobs and should generally do the things Anthony Grant teams do. Missouri lost a ton of talent but should still have a pulse in this thing. Ole Miss returns our friend Marshall Henderson (January 29 in Knoxville) but none of the size around him. And many like LSU to make the leap, 19-12 (9-9) last year and returning almost everyone. I have no doubt there will be someone else behind that group that takes a step forward as well to surprise.
Tennessee's first goal will be to make the tournament after the last few years, but I still think we're better than settling for that. In the preseason Bracket Matrix the Vols appear in all 23 projections, once as a 4 seed and once as an 11, with all others putting the Vols between 5-10. So I think getting in is clearly the expectation, which means the goals are a little loftier.
This may be a championship level recruiting class at Kentucky and the Vols may get a terrible matchup in the NCAA Tournament. But that doesn't mean this team isn't capable of competing for the SEC Championship or playing into the second weekend of March. We keep going back to this point because it's the standard Pearl created here, and one I think Cuonzo's Vols are capable of carrying forward. Tennessee Basketball went to the second weekend enough to make it a reasonable goal. Behind that goal is the singular idea that Tennessee is capable of not just playing with but beating everyone on their schedule on any given night.
Is this team that good? I can't wait to find out. The journey starts tomorrow night at 9:00 PM ET at Xavier. Basketball is back, and this could be a special season.