The Vols beat Pikeville 80-62 in their exhibition opener and will get one more freebie when Lenoir-Rhyne visits on Saturday night. After that it gets very real: the season opener in Annapolis against #15 VCU and a Thanksgiving tournament that could put the Vols against #5 Kansas.
Tennessee comes in at 61st in Ken Pomeroy's preseason rankings, sixth in the SEC behind the usual juggernauts in Lexington and Gainesville, what could be pay-off years for Arkansas and Georgia, and those pesky Elephants from Alabama, who always seemed to hang right around our level during Cuonzo Martin's tenure. But you'll find most of the eyeball tests - which are, of course, focused on depth charts and nothing more at this point - find the Vols in the bottom tier of the SEC, picked 13th out of 14 at media days this year.
It will take far longer than the first month of the season to answer some of the biggest questions this team will face, especially with so many moving parts. In the exhibition the Vols put 11 players on the floor (guard Ian Chiles is apparently banged up), each of them getting at least eight minutes. Again, just one game, but the heaviest minutes went to Josh Richardson (31), Robert Hubbs III (24), Kevin Punter (24), and Armani Moore (23). That left a bit of a committee in the post.
Figuring out whether to play an eight or ten man rotation and who those last few players are is important, but the Vols have plenty of questions at the top as well. Here are our five biggest questions for Tennessee's 2014-15 basketball team?
1. How does Josh Richardson transition to point guard/alpha male?
First it was going to be Ian Chiles, then it was going to be Kevin Punter, but in the exhibition Richardson played the most minutes at point guard. He had a nice line of 15 points and five assists, but also had three of Tennessee's 18 turnovers. With no true point guard and this many new pieces, that assist/turnover number may not be very pretty.
Tennessee is asking so much from Josh Richardson it's hard to keep it all straight. Be the team's leading scorer (probably). Be the team's point guard. Guard the other team's best player (maybe). All this from a guy who, really until the NCAA Tournament, was thought to be primarily a defensive stopper. Richardson's jack of all trades nature will obviously help, but with few other options to master any of them I'm not sure how much help he's going to get even before we consider how he'll fare against the other team's best defender.
In some ways it's probably not what Richardson envisioned in his senior season, but in Cuonzo's language, you like guys who accept the challenge and he certainly won't back down from this one. How much he can give in not just individual production but helping make other guys better in running the offense will answer a lot about how far the Vols can go this season.
2. Can Armani Moore make the leap?
Following in Richardson's footsteps, here's a two-year bench contributor at about 13 minutes a game now probably being asked to at least double that, and significantly increase his production across the board. And oh, by the way, guard the other team's power forward even though you're only 6'5". We love Armani as a shot blocker and for his all-around athleticism. But he's going to be asked to do far more than that this season. He and Richardson have been named co-captains and are clearly the face of this thing going in, but some of that is because they're really the only two faces we know. We've seen enough from Richardson to believe he'll still be a huge part of this team's productivity. But there's more unknown with Armani, carrying the hope that he can step into bigger shoes and fill them on both ends of the floor. He was 8 of 10 from the field in the opener, so that's a good start.
3. How much do the Vols get from Dominic Woodson?
If you didn't see the exhibition, the very first thing you will notice watching this Tennessee team play is how tiny they look (and are) when Woodson's not on the floor. After three years of watching Stokes and Maymon, the rest of Tennessee's post options this season are shallow-rooted trees. They'll grow, but some of that growth can only come with time.
And then there's Woodson on the other end of the spectrum, rapidly losing weight and trying to get in game shape to run Tyndall's press and get up and down the floor. He got a dozen minutes in the exhibition; I think the Vols will take whatever they can get from him this season, but would love if that number moved closer to 18-20 minutes. The Vols will probably get good efforts from guys like Willie Carmichael and Tariq Owens on the block, but Woodson brings physicality that's just not present yet in the others. How quickly he can contribute is another big factor in Tennessee's ceiling, along with...
4. How fast can Robert Hubbs III and/or Detrick Mostella arrive?
Both of these guys may come off the bench early in the season as they continue to adjust to Donnie Tyndall's system. But if you trust recruiting rankings, these are the two highest ceilings on the roster. Hubbs is bouncing back from shoulder surgery and finding his place with a different coaching staff, while Mostella is playing in an organized system requiring far more discipline on the floor than he has apparently been asked to show previously. Mostella got off to a good start: 4 of 8 (2 of 5 3PT) and 11 points in just 18 minutes in the exhibition. A sign of things to come, perhaps: five players had more than 18 minutes in that game but Mostella took the second-most shots. No complaints here if he's going to hit half of them.
Don't expect either of these guys to be consistent out of the gate. But if one or both of them has rounded into a reliable scoring option by league play, Tennessee will be much harder to deal with.
5. How successful will the press be?
Tennessee's identity under Cuonzo Martin was man-to-man defense and rebounding. Where Donnie Tyndall's teams have stood out most is in creating turnovers with the press: last year Southern Miss was 14th nationally, forcing 15.7 turnovers per game. By contrast, the Vols forced 10.8 per game. That's a huge difference. The year before the Golden Eagles were 10th nationally at 17.2 per game. When Tyndall says his press runs like Louisville's, he's not lying; the Cards have been second in the nation in turnovers forced the last two years. The bad news: VCU leads the pack in that category, and we play them first. You couldn't ask for a worse opening opponent for a team that's been turning the ball over too much in practice.
How quickly can Tennessee become an effective full-court press team? The Vols have the athleticism to pull it off, but lack the experience. If Tyndall's press takes hold with this team, the Vols could use it to swing the outcome of many of their winnable games, which should still include a significant percentage of SEC play. The faster the Vols get the press in their DNA, the better Tennessee will be, now and later.
BONUS: How will the NCAA investigation at Southern Miss impact this season?
There's no way to know right now. It appears we're going to have to wait for more details to come out and the investigation to conclude to see what percentage of fault will come to Tyndall's doorstep. Losing Chris Clarke is a clear blow for the future and with an uncertain situation recruiting will be very difficult. But for the 2014-15 Vols, there's no way to know how they'll be impacted by this news. We saw Bruce Pearl's last team race off to a Top 5 start with far more facts at play before the whole thing came crashing down around an in-season suspension and a terrible end. The Vols are starting over, which means chemistry - more important in basketball than any other sport - is a factor by default. How will this team rally together? Will this be a heavy distraction or a light one? Are you ready for more timelines?
As is the case with most things Tennessee Basketall right now, we'll just have to wait and see.