Seven days away from tipoff, the 09-10 Vols prepare to embark on a 30 game schedule as defending SEC East Champions and with every major contributor back. Bruce Pearl has changed everything about Tennessee Basketball in his first four seasons, to the point that we enter this year with a top ten ranking and championship expectations. The overall goals continue to be the same as they have been since Pearl established himself: success is defined now by more than just making the tournament, but by higher seeds and deeper progress, and by winning the division and winning the conference, two things that will require going through our biggest rival from the Bluegrass. The rivalry between Tennessee and Kentucky has a chance to reach unprecedented heights this season, and both have a chance to do something special.
As always, the biggest goal for Tennessee Basketball continues to be the Elite Eight, the promised land that the Vols have never reached, falling thrice in the Sweet Sixteen in this decade. Get there, and hey...we might as well make the Final Four.
This team has the talent, experience and coaching to go far. Exactly how far will be determined by the answers to these questions:
5. How much productivity will the Vols get at point guard?
The Vols have plenty of guys who can score, but need someone who can distribute. Last year Bobby Maze put up numbers that were very similar to what we saw from Ramar Smith: 8.2 points, 3.2 assists, a low shooting percentage from behind the arc...and while Maze was +2 in assist/turnover ratio and did a serviceable job at the position, the Vols need the combination of Maze and Melvin Goins to run the offense with greater efficiency. And on the defensive side of the ball, the point guard will play a key role in answering our second question...
4. How effective will the Controlled Chaos Press be after its absence last season?
Pearl's first three teams may not have been the most talented or later the most experienced, but they played with a certain style: fast, tenacious, leading the conference in scoring while also turning teams over on the defensive end. There was no one better at getting a turnover on an out-of-bounds play, and the Vols used a small, quick lineup to exectue a full-court press that wore teams down. Last year, the Vols traded speed for size at the guard positions, and also lost years of experience with Pearl's system with the departure of Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith. As a result, the Vols stayed away from the press while allowing opposing guards to routinely go off for career nights.
Pearl has promised that the Vols are going back to their old ways this season, but doing so will involve the same personnel stepping up considerably on the defensive end. Josh Tabb was one of Tennessee's best and most experienced defenders, and his departure further complicates this problem. Tennessee has the athleticism with Scotty Hopson, Cameron Tatum, JP Prince and others to run the scheme, but its overall effectiveness will be in question until we see it working regularly again. Will this feel like a Bruce Pearl team again?
3. Can Scotty Hopson make the leap?
The pieces are there: former McDonald's All-American, 6'7" frame that added fifteen pounds in the offseason, occasional flashes of brilliance in a respectable freshman season (9.2 points per game), and word that his jump shot has been altered for the better. Hopson has so much raw talent that I still believe that if he fully harnesses it, he won't be in Knoxville for his senior season. Part of it is determining what kind of player he's going to be - is he going to attack the basket, or is he a jump shooter? - but in all reality, Hopson is capable of being both. The Vols could use more touch from beyond the arc, but Pearl talks about players with the ability to create their own shots, and Hopson can certainly do that as well.
If Hopson makes the leap from potential to reality, not just every now and then but consistently, Tennessee's chances of winning the SEC and playing deep into March increase dramatically. The Vols have two clear scoring options in Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism, but neither can contribute the way Hopson is capable of, from both beyond the arc and slashing to the hole. If Hopson has improved and matured as much as we hope this season, there will be very, very few teams that will out-talent Tennessee.
2. Will the three-point shooting improve, and how much will we rely on it?
I still have to remember that Lofton and Juanny aren't walking through those doors, because we were incredibly spoiled for two great years with both of them in the starting lineup. When the Vols could spread the floor with those guys on either side and Tyler Smith posting up down low, good grief we were dangerous. The Vols may not get back to the days where two guys are knocking down threes over 45% of the time, but things can still improve.
It wasn't just that Tennessee shot poorly from three last season, at 31.5% as a team. And it wasn't just that the wealth was spread around: Josh Tabb was the only player to break 40%, and seven guys took more threes than he did, all shooting between 27.5% (Renaldo Woolridge) and 35.7% (Hopson).
Tennessee was the worst three point shooting team in the NCAA field last season, and still jacked up 33 of them in the game against Oklahoma State. Really, this problem goes back to the first three questions: an inability to run an effective offense outside of jacking threes more often than not, no press and thus little transition game to create turnovers and easier scoring opportunities, and only two guys in Tyler and Wayne - and Wayne likes to shoot as much as anybody - who could create their own shot from inside the arc.
So for starters, the Vols need to run a better halfcourt offense, need the press to create the transition opportunities we all know and love from earlier BruceBall seasons, and need Scotty Hopson to become a scoring threat inside the arc. From there, Tennessee will do less standing around and less settling for threes, and find more balanced scoring and hopefully, more open threes that are knocked down more of the time. After the Florida game in Knoxville last season, Pearl asked if we couldn't shoot the three, or if we had good shooters that just weren't hitting. Relying on the three less will hopefully lead to good shooters hitting them more this season. And the more we get to use "Skylar McBee...for three!", the better.
1. Will this team play its best basketball when it matters most?
That starts in the last five minutes, where in the regular season last year the Vols lost games to Gonzaga (overtime), Memphis (54-52), LSU (79-73), Auburn (78-77), and Alabama (miracle shot). Pearl's first three teams were excellent at winning close games, but last year the list of teams Tennessee beat in crunch time reads like this: Belmont, Arkansas, Mississippi State. The other close wins were the result of dwindling big leads in games the Vols still managed to win.
Being a team that wins games in crunch time will help the Vols become a team that wins games in March. Tennessee was right there in their two biggest games last season, but lost them both on the final possession to Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament Finals, and to Oklahoma State in the NCAA Tournament. The Vols must play with greater confidence and poise in the last five minutes, and the journey of the season must lead to fully realized talent and a fully mature team come tournament time. Last year this team struggled with unrealized expectations, and walked the fine line between success and disappointment. This year, can they come together and improve, so that we're winning these close games instead of losing them?
The pieces are there. Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism are great players in their senior seasons, JP Prince is capable of contributing from everywhere, the team is deep and experienced and could get an even bigger boost from Scotty Hopson. If the Vols can get back to playing what has become Tennessee Basketball under Pearl - running in transition, forcing turnovers, knocking down threes and winning the last five minutes - this team is capable of reaching its goals: standing toe to toe with Kentucky and finishing higher than them in the standings for the fifth year in a row, winning another division and conference title, and reaching the promised land of an Elite Eight/Final Four in March.
(What did we miss? As always, we invite you to leave your questions and answers in the comments...)