One of the main reasons Cuonzo Martin has faced so much pressure in 2014 is the belief the Vols will be taking a step backward in 2015. Seniors Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon, and Antonio Barton are preparing for their last go-round in the SEC and hopefully NCAA Tournaments. Junior Jarnell Stokes has given indications he will go turn pro early with even the slightest hope from NBA scouts.
But this conversation has changed dramatically in the last week: three NCAA Tournament wins have put the Vols in the Sweet 16, and Tennessee is playing at an incredibly high level right now, up to sixth in the nation in Ken Pomeroy's ratings. As Cuonzo Martin picks up bonuses and the seat moves from hot to extension, Tennessee fans have found reason to believe in this program not just because of its head coach, but its returning talent. Josh Richardson has been Tennessee's most outstanding player in the NCAA Tournament, transforming from defensive stopper to offensive juggernaut (and still defensive stopper). With five-star freshman Robert Hubbs set to return from the shoulder injury that's sidelined him this year, all of a sudden Tennessee looks pretty strong 1-4 with Darius Thompson, Hubbs, Richardson, and Armani Moore.
The Vols have some depth behind them but no clear answer in the post. But one facet often left out of the Future Cuonzo talk is who the Vols have coming in as freshmen in 2014-15. Who will join the Volunteer fight next season?
- PG Larry Austin 6'1" 165, Springfield, IL. Austin is a four-star in 247's composite rankings and the 21st best point in the nation. Austin had offers from midwestern area schools like Memphis, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Illinois, and Iowa. This is another example, like Josh Richardson, of Cuonzo using his midwestern ties to pull a kid out of the area. There's always much debate about the nature of the true point guard, though the Vols seem to have one now in Thompson. Austin is UT's highest-rated recruit and could split duties with Thompson to earn playing time right away.
- PF Philip Cofer 6'8" 205, Fayetteville, GA. A Vol legacy with parents who played football and Lady Vol basketball, the Atlanta-area Cofer had offers from plenty of southern schools like Alabama and Auburn, as well as Cincinnati and Xavier. He'll need to put more meat on his bones like this year's freshman A.J. Davis, but because of the lack of quality depth in the post he too could compete for immediate playing time.
- PF C.J. Turman 6'9" 235, Madison, GA. This kid needs less meat on his bones. Turman chose the Vols over offers from most of the mid-tier SEC including Alabama, Georgia, and Ole Miss. Cofer is believed to be more of an offensive threat, but Turman may fit the Cuonzo mold of tough players who can contribute with defense and rebounding. So the Vols will add two options to get in and bang inside right away.
- SG Jordan Cornish 6'6" 215, New Orleans, LA. Rounding out the class is Cornish, a much bigger guard who was one of the best players in the state of Louisiana. If Tennessee continues to get production from Richardson and Hubbs becomes the player everyone hopes he'll be, the Vols may not need much from Cornish right away. But again, he fits Cuonzo's profile of bigger perimeter players who can cause problems on the defensive end.
Overall the Vols are ranked 48th in 247's composite team rankings, Austin the lone four star and the others three stars, though all four are among the nation's Top 150 players. It's a ranking consistent with where Martin has been during his entire career, with each of his classes coming in from the mid-30s to the high-40s nationally. But here again Richardson gives hope that Cuonzo's system guys can blossom into something more than defensive specialists.
Tennessee should have its point guard minutes covered with Austin and Thompson, and will at least put two new bodies into a wide-open post conversation even if the Vols' rotation features lots of minutes for Armani Moore at the 4 next year. In a mostly-cyclical game the Vols should have some rebuilding work to do next year, but if Cuonzo can continue to develop existing players and work freshmen into the fold, the Vols can certainly remain competitive as a new nucleus forms.