Consider how much has changed since the last time we played these guys. On November 24, 2010 the Vols beat the Rams 77-72 in Madison Square Garden, the semifinals of the preseason NIT. At the time the Vols were ranked #24 coming off an Elite Eight appearance and were 48 hours away from beating #7 Villanova and then #3 Pittsburgh to enter the top five. And at the time VCU's most recent highlight was winning the CBI postseason tournament. It was Shaka Smart's second year and Bruce Pearl's last.
Four months later as Tennessee flamed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, VCU won their way in via the First Four. Then they beat six seed Georgetown, three seed Purdue, ten seed Florida State, and one seed Kansas by setting the world on fire from behind the arc.
Since making the Final Four in 2011, VCU has earned three additional trips to the NCAA Tournament and consecutive five seeds. In five years Shaka Smart boasts a .749 winning percentage (eighth best among active coaches) and is undefeated against phone calls from bigger schools. And this year's squad could be his best ever, ranked 15th in the preseason AP poll and 17th in Ken Pomeroy's first rankings.
Here are three thoughts for your Friday as college basketball begins tonight:
1. Tennessee has no true point guard on the roster. VCU has led the nation in turnovers forced the last three years.
You can make a very strong argument for VCU as the one team this Tennessee squad doesn't want to face right now as the Donnie Tyndall era begins; credit Tyndall and company for finalizing this game in June and continuing the recent trend in Knoxville of playing elite competition. You can also credit Tyndall for creativity: to prepare for VCU the Vols have been playing 5-on-6 in practice.
At least we know you won't be bored by slow pace: Tyndall's Vols will be faster than Cuonzo's Vols, but VCU finished 15th in the country in possessions per game last year, a pace which should force Tennessee to go even faster. VCU point guard Briante Weber averaged 9.4 points, 3.9 assists, and 3.5 steals per game last year. All eyes were already going to be on Josh Richardson coming into this season, but if he gets the majority of minutes at point guard this year it could be a rocky start tonight.
It will also be interesting to see how effective Tyndall's full-court press will be in its debut when facing a team who knows pressure better than anyone.
2. Shaka's teams like to shoot threes and like getting long rebounds off misses. Will the Vols play the three point game as well?
Though they didn't have anybody shoot over 40% from the arc last year the Rams still launched 744 threes, 34th most in college basketball. Southern Miss was a middle of the pack three point shooting team last year, and Tennessee graduated Jordan McRae and the streaky Antonio Barton. It does not appear that Detrick Mostella is afraid to shoot, and he'll likely take his chances along with other perimeter players like Robert Hubbs III. How disciplined will Tennessee be on offense given it's the first game of a new year and a new era and there should be lots of getting up and down the floor?
For VCU, leading scorer Treveon Graham, a 6'6" perimeter player, is back for his senior season after averaging 15.8 points and 7.0 rebounds last year. He'll be joined in the backcourt by 6'3" junior Melvin Johnson who also averaged double figures last season and Weber at the point
3. Tennessee will be undersized this year, but not so much tonight.
We mentioned this in our season preview: the first thing you'll notice watching this year's team is how tiny they look when Dominic Woodson isn't on the floor. There are plenty of pounds between Stokes and Maymon and what you'll see from this year's team when the Memphis transfer has to come off the floor, which will be a lot early on as his conditioning continues to grow.
But VCU has no one on the roster taller than 6'9" and their biggest returning contributor, 6'8" 225 Jared Guest, played just nine minutes per game last year. Almost all of VCU's returning production comes from guard play. This means guys like Armani Moore and Derek Reese won't be at a huge disadvantage tonight when they have to play post minutes. VCU has a mammoth advantage in experience, but you should see similar athleticism on both ends tonight.
The first steps for Donnie Tyndall have already been a little bumpy and we could see more of the same tonight. There is so much unknown with Tennessee right now, surely we'll get a little excitement along the way too.
Tennessee and VCU help tip-off the college basketball season at 6:30 PM ET in the Veterans Classic from Annapolis, Maryland on CBS College Sports Network.