What's the best way to put an exhibition loss behind you and distract yourself from an NCAA investigation into your program? Actual basketball!
BruceBall, Year Six officially starts tonight, as the Vols welcome Tennessee-Chattanooga to Thompson-Boling Arena (you can stay up late with us in the live game thread - 9:00 PM EST, SportSouth). The Mocs were 15-18 last year, 6-12 in Southern Conference play. They did make the NCAA Tournament two years ago, a season that started with a 114-75 beatdown at the hands of the Vols.
With a rebuilding year behind them, Chattanooga returns three starters but two of them have apparently been replaced in the starting lineup. Point guard Keegan Bell, a Vanderbilt transfer who averaged 4.8 assists last year, is the lone holdover, and the Mocs will start a front line of 6'5" Omar Wattad, 6'7" Chris Early, and 6'8" DeAntre Jefferson.
Plain and simple, it's a game the Vols should win: we're bigger, more talented, and more experienced. Having had an excellent wake-up call in the exhibition loss, Tennessee should be ready to play. Pearl said he's only going to play a 10-man rotation, so right away there will be guys we don't see in meaningful action. Here are a few questions for tonight's season opener:
Will the second team players impress?
Your probable starters are Melvin Goins, Scotty Hopson, Cameron Tatum, Tobias Harris, and Brian Williams. Pearl mentioned (at the link above) that Kenny Hall, who's been slowed by a foot injury, will not be in the initial ten man rotation. Pearl also mentioned that Renaldo Woolridge is going to get a look at the three over freshman Jordan McRae.
So your second five coming off the bench should be Trae Golden, Swipa, John Fields and Steven Pearl (with Jeronne Maymon sitting out until the end of the fall semester) in the post, and Skylar McBee. We want to see Golden grow into the point guard role, so we don't have to sweat it out when Goins comes out. John Fields is a shot-blocking force, but what's his offensive skill set? Can Skylar and Swipa, who we've seen before, show cause to keep the minutes they've earned in practice?
Can someone other than Cameron Tatum knock down a three?
The Vols continue to put distance between themselves and the early BruceBall teams that lived with Chris Lofton, C.J. Watson, and JaJuan Smith knocking down threes from everywhere. But UT is still going to need to hit shots from the perimeter, something Indianapolis dared them to do in the exhibition and they couldn't. Tatum was a 38.9% three point shooter last year. The next best Vol was Scotty Hopson, at only 33.3%. The team shot only 32.0% from the arc last year, and lost both Chism and Prince, who both shot above that percentage.
It may not have to be the same person each night, but it's going to have to be someone every night. Skylar shot almost 50% from the arc playing in China this summer, he can knock them down. Will we see Woolridge drift back there again? Who will give us confidence in their shot?
How long will it take us to fall in love with Tobias Harris?
I mean, I'd be fine with "by the first media timeout"...but remember what Dane Bradshaw said on our podcast: he may not give you the highlight plays, but he's not going to give you as many of the freshman mistakes either. On a team full of talent that has struggled to find consistency, if Harris just goes to work every night and produces, we won't need the spectacular to love him.
Having said that, if he wants to drop a 25-10 on these guys, that'd be fine with me.
Who will lead us?
It's going to take more than one night to answer this question. Last year it took two months and an arrest. Before that, we watched that group of players for a year and a half and wondered why so much talent couldn't find itself consistently.
Will it be Brian Williams, who has the voice to do it? Will it be Scotty Hopson, who has the game? Will it be a combination of several players? The sooner we figure it out, the better...but right away, I'd just like to see a team that's still frustrated by the exhibition loss take it out on an inferior opponent. The Vols should win, look good doing it, and begin to establish the rotation and leadership that will lead to their best basketball as the season progresses.