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Tennessee Basketball Preview: Old Faces, New Questions

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Believe it or not, basketball season is here:  the Cuonzo Martin Era begins with an exhibition game against Carson Newman tomorrow night, another one Monday with Lincoln Memorial, and then the season opener next Friday night against UNC-Greensboro.

We're going to learn quickly (and perhaps painfully in Maui) about the specifics of this basketball team and how Cuonzo Martin will operate.  And a number of new faces should play their way in to what should be a nine man rotation.  But for each returning Vol, here is one general question that needs to be answered in a positive way for the Vols to be competitive this season:

Cameron Tatum:  Is he the leader?

Brad covered this in detail last week:

That's the big question: Just which Tatum will we be getting this year?

There is the athletic, physical swingman who led the team with 16 hustle plays last season, showed the ability to be a special player in a big game against Florida on Jan. 11. In that game -- a heartbreaking 81-75 overtime loss to the Gators in Knoxville -- Tatum erupted for a team-high 21 points on 4-of-7 3-point shooting and was a difference-maker in a huge conference game. There also was the 15-point performance against Auburn where he scored from all over the floor.

Then, however, there's the inconsistent walking frustration Tatum is prone to become. In a one-point loss to the Gators in Gainesville, he sputtered for six points. He fumbled around for three points in a loss to Kentucky and just six in a setback against UConn. Then, there was his Great Disappearing Act in crunch time late last year. In an SEC tournament win over Arkansas and losses to Florida and in the NCAA tournament to Michigan, Tatum had six COMBINED points -- three against the Razorbacks, three against Michigan and a goose egg vs. the Gators. There was no appearance of the athlete who trounced UF earlier in the year. There are defensive lapses, shooting disappearances, hustle problems. It seems like a Hopsonesque lack of focus at times.

For the season, 8.8 points isn't terrible. But behind Tatum's numbers is an ugly 67% free-throw average, 37.5 field goal percentage and 27.2% clip from 3-point range. Though he started in all but one of UT's 34 games, his inconsistency was a microcosm of a disappointing 19-15 year.

Tatum is the one guy on this team that's seen it all:  in his redshirt year, the Vols rose to number one in the country.  As a freshman he actually pushed J.P. Prince out of the starting lineup at the beginning of the year, averaging 10.2 points in the non-conference schedule, including 17 against Georgetown and 22 against Gonzaga.  As a sophomore he was in the car with the guns and drugs, then became the team's best three point shooter upon his return at 38.9%.  And as Brad pointed out, last year when the Vols desperately needed him to be the third option, he was very up and down.

So what can we expect if he's now the first option?

It's not to say that Tatum is the only potential leader on this team.  But in a system that will emphasize defense and needs points wherever they're available, Tatum should come into the year as the primary threat.  How much of a threat can that be, and how much has Tatum matured under Cuonzo's care?  We'll find out...but if points don't come from Tatum, where will they come from?

Renaldo Woolridge:  Where does he play?

Swipa is the guy we're all dying to love for more than just his personality.  Seems to be by all accounts a great kid who has a bright future in life, and could go far in a number of ways.  On the floor, he's the guy that gave us 14 points and four threes out of nowhere in the upset of #1 Kansas, a memory that will live forever...

But it's really the only on-floor memory we have of Renaldo.  His minutes actually decreased from his sophomore to junior years, and in all three seasons he's had a steep drop-off in playing time from game one to the end of the season.

Woolridge has always appeared to have talent, and in a new system he could thrive...but where?  Will he play on the wing and shoot threes again?  Will he play the four and go inside-out?  Or will he even get some minutes at the five, as Martin himself has alluded to, where the Vols are painfully thin on bodies?  Woolridge is 6'9" and can definitely jump, so could he become a disruptive force in the paint on defense?

Wherever he plays, the Vols are almost certainly going to need a contribution from him.  He may be forced to go outside his natural skill set, but do we really even know what that is at this point?  Still, like many on this team who were buried by others in Bruce Pearl's talented rotation, Woolridge gets a fresh - and final - start with Cuonzo Martin.  Here's hoping he makes the most of it - we all want to see Swiperboy go out with a bang.


Kenny Hall - Can he score in the paint?

What the Vols were missing last season, among several things, was the presence of a back-to-the-basket scorer inside who could post up and make the defense pay with either a bucket, drawing a foul, or drawing a double-team and kicking it to the open man.  What guys like Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism brought to the offense when they played down low was missing, because Brian Williams just wasn't built to be that guy.

We know Hall can block shots, we know he's athletic, we know he can rebound.  If he can stay out of constant foul trouble, can he also give the Vols something productive offensively on the block?  This kid is immensely talented and has seen plenty of action in small doses the last two that we need him, what will he give us?


Skylar McBee - Can he be more than just a three point shooter?

You'll say, "And he's not even that great at that!", and in part you're right:  McBee hit only 32.4% of his threes last year.  Problem was, that led the team after Scotty Hopson last year.  What you do get with McBee is great free throw shooting (88.2%) and plenty of hustle...but is he good enough to be a regular rotation player, or even a starter on this team?

The Vols tried McBee as the backup point guard last season but it never really took.  It also appeared, to me, that there were simply some players that McBee couldn't guard one-on-one.  In Martin's system with such a heavy emphasis on defense, will McBee be good enough to get in there?  And if he does, can he become a more complete basketball player on both ends of the floor?


Trae Golden - Can he make the leap and become an SEC-caliber point guard?

As the backup to Melvin Goins last year, I thought Golden did a solid job, especially for a freshman.  He had a 2.2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (Goins was 1.5-1) and hit 82.5% of his free throws.  That was in thirteen minutes a night.  Now the Vols will need him for the majority of the evening.

Unless Wes Washpun is good enough to come in and take his job outright, I think Golden is the surest bet on this team.  It sounds strange to say, but he's been the most productive in the most similar role to what he'll see this season - Tatum has to lead, Woolridge and McBee may play slightly out of position, Hall hasn't shown enough yet, etc.  "Surest bet" does not mean "best player", but I like the upside with Golden, and his on-ball defense should only improve under Cuonzo.  The head man likes his point guards to be leaders, and if Golden continues to improve, his play could match.


Jeronne Maymon - Is out-of-control better?

That may not be the best way to ask it, but here's the thing:  Maymon looked like a beast for us in the interior when he finally got in the game last season.  In his first six games at the close of the non-conference season, Maymon averaged 4.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in just 10.8 minutes.  He played with reckless abandon, working hard for offensive rebounds to put back his own shot more than once.  There was the small matter of him being a 25% free throw shooter, but still.

But once conference play started, Maymon disappeared:  he only played in seven of UT's sixteen SEC games, and only twice got above his average in minutes because Brian Williams was out.  The assumption is that Pearl thought the post rotation of BWill, John Fields, Tobias Harris, and Steven Pearl was giving Tennessee the best chance to win.

Maymon easily has a higher ceiling than Pearl, and a higher offensive ceiling than Fields.  Like Kenny Hall, the more the Vols get from him inside, the better.  This kid was a banger last year, out of control at times, and an absolute foul machine.  Will Cuonzo tone him down or turn him loose?


Jordan McRae - Who are you?

The hype on McRae was always great potential, young player.  The Vols were deep enough last year that he never really got in the rotation, even when the Vols were desperate for a third scorer.  Hopefully, that was because he was too young and not because he can't be a scoring option.

McRae will come in to his second season with fewer expectations and less of the spotlight, but that doesn't mean Tennessee couldn't use a sudden outburst from this talented kid.  Again, the premium will be on defense, and if McRae can't play it it may not matter how good he could be offensively.  And we still really have no idea of what he can actually do.

But if he can defend well enough to give himself a chance to shine on the other end, the Vols could certainly use all the help they can get.