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Tennessee Basketball: Suspensions, Rotations, Postseason & Charlotte

For at least one game and almost certainly more - which means we'll spend the rest of the week figuring out how the Vols can compete with #1 Kansas on Sunday - the hypotheticals will become reality, and you'll see a very different Tennessee team on the floor tomorrow night against Charlotte.  There is still no news on the ongoing investigation of Tyler Smith, Cameron Tatum, Brian Williams, and Melvin Goins - the four were released on bond but still face drug and weapons possession charges.  Because of the weapons charges, and especially because of the filed off serial number issue, many believe this investigation is going to take several days if not several weeks.

But with Mike Hamilton saying yesterday that the university will adopt a zero tolerance policy for weapons charges like these in the future, and stating that "we start at dismissal and work our way backwards - it doesn't mean we start at one game and work our way forwards", it seems almost certain that at least some players will not return to the program.  And based on the charges, the most likely (and the most damaging) choice appears to be Tyler Smith.

I'm not sure that the most likely outcome is all four players getting kicked off the team, but that depends on how both the authorities and Hamilton/Pearl choose to interpret the fact that there were only two guns in the car, but all the players knew they were present.  Combined with the marijuana possession and open alcohol container, this isn't going to end real well for anybody.

So the question becomes, can this season still end well for Tennessee?  

Several of us, including memphispete on Saturday, have been throwing around ideas about what the Vols might look like without all four of these guys on the floor.  Now we're going to see it Wednesday night, and again, it probably won't be the last time.  We know who most of the players involved will be...but how will the rotation work out?  Bruce Pearl has said that he still wants to play a nine man let's throw some darts...

Starters:  Bobby Maze, Scotty Hopson, J.P. Prince, Renaldo Woolridge, Wayne Chism

Bench:  Skylar McBee, Kenny Hall, Steven Pearl, Josh Bone

First of all...while it may not be a group that's going to win championships or make the Elite Eight, the core of Maze, Hopson, Prince and Chism is still a good unit that should make the Vols competitive.  And it goes without saying that Tennessee has to be lucky in terms of injury from this point out - losing anybody else, and especially one of those four, would be catastrophic.

The biggest burden falls immediately on Woolridge and freshman Kenny Hall, both of whom were playing only eight minutes per game.  Woolridge will get the first look, but one of those guys is going to have to become the fifth starter, and one of those guys is going to get the crunch-time minutes.  If it's Hall - who scored 16 points against North Carolina A&T, but did not make the rotation at Memphis - the Vols will still be able to have some sort of real post presence.  But if it's Woolridge, the Vols are going to look very similar to the 2007 team that started Dane Bradshaw at power forward; if your two biggest players are Swipa and CHI$$LE!, you're probably not pounding it inside much.

The other big question is at point guard, where it'll be Bobby Maze and then lots of questions.  Josh Bone may be an option, a Southern Illinois transfer who led the Salukis in threes in 2008, but he hasn't played anything other than garbage time this season.  Michael Hubert has actually played a few real minutes at point guard before, but a knee injury in practice three weeks ago throws a wrench into that situation.  When Melvin Goins injured his ankle, it was Tyler Smith who many thought would get the backup point guard minutes...and now both are gone.

But don't forget:  with his most talented team heading to the 2008 NCAA Tournament as a 2 seed, Bruce Pearl put J.P. Prince at point guard with no prior experience.  Prince did have a nice 9-7-5 stat line in the second round against Butler, but was part of the problem in the Sweet 16 loss to Louisville with only 2 points and only 1 assist. 

So the perimeter rotation should involve Maze, Hopson, and Skylar McBee, with Prince playing point guard when   Maze is out and Josh Bone filling out minutes here and there.  Steven Pearl will probably play a similar role in the post - and the coach's son has played that role before, and is a decent defensive post presence but offers little in terms of an offensive skill set.

There will also be times when either Hopson or Chism are on the bench, and the other is going to become the primary option in the offense for the first time in their career.  Both have done good things in the flow of Tennessee's full-strength offense...but can either of them step up their game to carry the team when they need it?  We need the best from Scotty Hopson, now more than ever.  Will the increased burden make him better?

Again, it remains a possibility that we get a couple of these guys back...but if not, can Tennessee still make the NCAA Tournament?

Let's start with the reset button:  at 10-2, the Vols can go 6-12 from here and still make the NIT.  We'll probably find out pretty quick if that's what we'll end up having to pull for.

But let's be generous, and say this depleted team beats Charlotte (more on them in a second) and loses to #1 Kansas, then goes 9-7 in the SEC.  That would put the Vols at 20-10 at the end of the regular season, and let's say they win one game in the SEC Tournament to finish 21-11.  You would look at that those numbers and like our chances.

However, we've seen the selection committee forget the past and live only in the present before.  In 2003, the Vols were 9-7 in the SEC, but Jon Higgins became an academic casualty the week of the SEC Tournament.  The Vols lost their first game in the conference tourney, and then became only the second SEC team ever to finish 9-7 but miss the dance.  And the selection committee made mention that Higgins' dismissal was a factor - that Tennessee was no longer as good as their record indicated.

We got the short end of the stick because the selection committee threw away the entire body of work over one dismissal and one loss.  If it's happened before, what makes us think it wouldn't happen again over (potentially) four dismissals and the entire SEC schedule?  If the Vols are merely a .500 team from here on out - no small feat - will the selection committee completely disregard the first twelve games of the season, including the one point loss to Purdue and the win at Memphis?

These are questions for later...the question for now is can we beat Charlotte?

The 49ers are 10-3, and two of their losses are to #5 Duke and #17 Georgia Tech.  They spanked Louisville at Freedom Hall 87-65, and were receiving votes in the AP Poll before a loss to Old Dominion.  This was always a trap game, and now it's an even deadlier one - even if we shouldn't be taking them for granted anymore, will the players be focused or distracted? 

Their strength is now our weakness:  this team is deep, with eleven players averaging ten minutes per game or more.  The Vols won't be pressing with their newfound inexperience on the floor, nor will they be wearing teams out anymore.  So will Charlotte turn the tables and wear down the Vols?

Charlotte is led by 6'6" forward Shamari Spears at 17.0 points per game.  Guard Derrio Green is the only other player to average more than 10 points per contest, but again, they're deep.  And they bang the boards:  Charlotte averages 41 rebounds per game, good for 17th in the nation.  There are Vols that have never been big rebounders that are going to have to hit the glass immediately for Tennessee to win.

More than anything, it'll be interesting from here on out, and that starts tomorrow.  I have no idea what Tennessee is really going to look like, how well we'll play or how well we'll play together.  And I have no idea if we'll beat a good Charlotte team.  Win or lose, it'll take some time to get a sense of how good this new rotation can be, especially with Kansas coming on Sunday.  But for now, the #15 Vols are a 10-2 team facing a new beginning...and where it goes from here may be just as surprising as the situation that got us in this mess in the first place.