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Tennessee Basketball Preview: Impossible Expectations

Year One is usually more about foundation than results.  But because the last guy was the best guy in the history of the program, we've become accustomed to the results being in our favor.  After an unbelievable first season - and this should be the last time we mention Pearl's Year One and Cuonzo's Year One in the same sentence, because it's such an unfair comparison - Bruce Pearl made sure that for each of the last five years, we came to the day before the first game of the season with the expectation that the Vols would be dancing.  At least.

This year, it's dancing at best.  At very best.  The NCAA Tournament should in no way be a goal fans place on this team.  I think the NIT is a good prize - as in, the season would be a success if the Vols got there, but not necessarily a failure if they don't.  The expectations are impossible not just because of the height of the bar set by Pearl, but the fact that this is a team full of last year's bench and this year's freshmen.  They are talented, on paper.  In real life?  We're about to find out.

It's hard to get a read on this team right now.  We should be able to say the same through the middle of next week, as the Vols open with UNC-Greensboro on Friday and Louisiana-Monroe next Wednesday, both 7-24 last season, both in Knoxville.

Then it's Maui, where we'll probably still struggle to see who we really are against #6 Duke and either #11 Memphis or #18 Michigan.  And even if the Vols do see Chaminade in their final game of the Maui Invitational, the return trip to the mainland runs first through Oakland, then back to Thompson-Boling against #10 Pittsburgh.

All of that before the stretch of games from January 4-24, including the first five SEC games, where the Vols might be underdogs seven games in a row.

When can we judge this team?  The end of the year sounds about right.

Until then?  Here's what to watch for in a year when expectations are impossible:

Be Competitive

It's not just Pearl's absence, but that of Tobias Harris, Scotty Hopson, and a once-promising class of incoming freshmen that never made it to campus.  You don't want to say that Tennessee is hitting the reset button as a program, because Pearl made too much progress and left without any program-wide NCAA sanctions.  Tennessee shouldn't have to go back to where it was before Bruce Pearl.  It should be elevated on the whole.

But from a roster standpoint, this is the reset button or at least a version of it.  78% of UT's points from last year are gone.  Almost all of what remains belongs to senior Cameron Tatum.  What Bruce Pearl did was building.  This is rebuilding.

So if we all embrace the almost-certain reality that the Vols won't be as good this year as they've been the last six and can safely call this a rebuilding year, it continues to be important to understand the difference between a rebuilding year where you get beat by 20 every night, and a rebuilding year where you're competitive.

Simply put, will this team give casual fans a reason to watch them?  Can you turn on your TV in January and February and believe this team at least has a chance to make it interesting?

Will they keep it competitive against the nine ranked teams on their schedule, six of whom are in the top ten, three of whom they'll play twice, four if they catch Memphis in Maui?  Probably not every time.  But it would do the Vols a world of good to give a few of the big boys a run for their money, not just to protect UT's giant killer reputation under Pearl, and not just to help the Vols' ability to continue to schedule the UConns of the world under Cuonzo, but to make people continue to believe that such things are at least possible with this basketball team right now.

The Vols will need to do more than keep it competitive against the lesser teams on their schedule, especially the middle and lower tiers of the SEC, where every win will be important.  When Tennessee's schedule was announced, we pointed out that if you could only pick one, the most valuable upset would be one of the first two games in Maui, because it would almost certainly guarantee another game against a marquee opponent instead of a date with Chaminade, if you're looking for RPI and SOS reasons to believe this team has a shot at March Madness.

We'll not saddle this team with that particular expectation until we see said upset...but again, the most important thing these Vols can do is play hard, and play close.  Be competitive.  Win one you're not supposed to.  Let us keep believing in Tennessee Basketball.


Watch the Attendance

We've mentioned this several times before, but the reason Bruce Pearl was so valuable wasn't just about wins and losses.  It was the ability to draw people in and get them to games.

Jerry Green made four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, won an SEC Championship and made the Sweet 16.  He averaged 15,563 at Thompson-Boling Arena in his tenure.  In Buzz Peterson's final season, it dipped to an average of 12,225.  

In six years, Pearl averaged 19,414.

What's the magic number for Cuonzo?  It'll depend on the product, of course, but if Pearl truly had a significant long-term impact on the program, attendance will stay north of 15,000.  Because going under that mark would mean we truly did hit the reset button and went back to BuzzBall numbers.

Everyone needs to support this team.  They should play hard, they should be scrappy, they should be underdogs.  It shouldn't be hard to love them.  But because they're not ranked or not knocking off every ranked team they see, some will leave.

I hope the team does their part to keep fans engaged.  And I hope the fans do their part and support the team even when it's not winning every night.


The most important players on the team

Here's who is most responsible for the ultimate fate of Cuonzo Martin:  Trae Golden, Jordan McRae, and any freshmen that distinguish themselves.

Tennessee Basketball coaches typically get four years to prove themselves.  Kevin O'Neill left a year early and Wade Houston stayed a year late, but before Pearl the average was four years.  I'd expect Cuonzo Martin to be working with a similar timetable.

So for both the present and the future, the success of Tennessee Basketball will rest mostly on a sophomore point guard and a sophomore scorer.

Realistic best case scenario:  the Vols are competitive this season, make the NIT, then return everyone but Cameron Tatum and Renaldo Woolridge and make a run toward the NCAA Tournament next season.  Tatum could be the leader this team needs right now, but he's not so much better than the other starters that his absence will be a huge blow after graduation.  And we all love Swiperboy, but he's the sixth man at best right now.

The majority of the players you'll see on the floor this season will be back next season.  And the two guys who could be most important in putting points on the board - the point guard and the most dynamic scorer - are only sophomores.

Doing well in recruiting will obviously help Cuonzo's cause, as well developing players like Yemi and Josh Richardson.  But the nucleus of whatever Martin is going to build is already on campus.  If Golden and McRae distinguish themselves this season, there can be real reason to believe that the Vols are only rebuilding for a single season before getting back into the tournament.

Let's be clear:  the sort of success Pearl had was a historical anomaly at this university and in this conference for schools not named Kentucky or Florida.  I've said this before, but I think a good bar for Tennessee Basketball is what Vanderbilt has done:  22 wins per year since 2003, made the NCAA Tournament five out of the last eight years, made the NIT two of the three years they didn't, made a pair of Sweet 16s.  Obviously, we'd like to avoid the early upsets that have plagued the Dores in their most recent tournament appearances, but appreciate the consistency overall.

In the last dozen years, Alabama has been ranked number one, Auburn has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and LSU has been to the Final Four.  And for all three, it all went away so fast because their success was based on one or two recruiting classes and not the strength of a consistent program.

Can Tennessee Basketball be more than Bruce Pearl?  This is the first step in finding out, but Golden and McRae will play the most important parts in that journey.  If the Vols are back in the tournament next season, we'll have not only stability, but belief that the program can continue to move forward.

Until then?  Enjoy this team.  Really.  It may get hard because we lose more than we're used to, but I really think they'll play a style of basketball that can be appreciated.  They need our support.  We want them to keep moving forward.

No one really knows what to expect.  The fun part comes in finding out...and that starts tomorrow night.

Go Vols.