College basketball returns this Friday, and the Vols are up on opening night. Tennessee will host UNC-Asheville Friday at 7:00 PM, the first of seven games in 16 days to open the season before the Vols take a two week break for final exams.
The equation for this year is simple: Tennessee Basketball - Donnie Tyndall + Rick Barnes - Josh Richardson = ?
There are a few other differences (Willie Carmichael and Tariq Owens out, freshmen Kyle Alexander, Shembari Phillips, Admiral Schofield, and juco Ray Kasongo in). But the major contributors all return, with one giant exception. The second through seventh leading scorers for the Vols last year are back. But at the top there is no Josh Richardson. And on the sideline we've traded Donnie Tyndall for Rick Barnes one season after going from Cuonzo Martin to Donnie Tyndall. It will take the time it always does to see if Barnes can ultimately be successful and if Tennessee can continue the forward progress Bruce Pearl began establishing now ten years ago. But in the present, Barnes inherits all the other major parts of a squad that battled their way to 16-16 (7-11) after being picked to play on Wednesday in the SEC Tournament in preseason.
That's where we find ourselves this preseason as well, which means there's plenty of room to surprise. It would not be a surprise to Rick Barnes, who has essentially walked into a football culture colored by impatience and a hunger for winning and said bring it on:
#Vols hoops coach Rick Barnes: I've gotten to the tournament with teams that have less talent and less skill than this team.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) August 21, 2015
(By the way, there's something refreshing about this. I thought Tyndall was pretty straightforward with the media too, and I think fans appreciate it. Assistant coach Chris Ogden was on Sports 180 Monday and said of UT's 96-83 exhibition win over Alabama-Huntsville, "The good thing is we put the ball in the hole. Shot the ball decent, did some good things offensively. There's a lot to clean up there and recognizing a great shot from a good shot. The bad is we can't guard us three and two more civilians.")
Tennessee is in a unique situation of having three coaches in three years (and four in six) with every party involved considered to be good at their job on gameday. Bruce, Cuonzo, and Donnie all overachieved with their first team. It's been more than a decade since we've seen a sub-.500 season. If Barnes is serious about dancing in March, he'll need to pull even more out of this roster.
How will the Vols handle their defensive issues and lack of size on the interior? By playing a faster brand of basketball than we've seen the last four years, which probably wasn't the assumption among the fanbase when Barnes was hired.
From Grant Ramey's story in October:
Texas was 300th in tempo last season but 102nd the year before, showing Barnes can be flexible in catering to his talent instead of the other way around. The Vols were 336th (of 351) last season in pace. I don't know if the end result will be better or worse than .500, but it should be faster and, for some, more entertaining.
It's foolish to read too much into exhibitions, but playing a 96-83 game is certainly an indicator of pace when the Vols didn't score more than 78 last year. It's probably also foolish to read too much into scrimmages, but...
UT beats Davidson in Saturday scrimmage 90-79. Armani Moore 30 points, 14 rebounds, Kevin Punter 27 points, Derek Reese 10 rebounds— Jimmy Hyams (@JimmyHyams) November 2, 2015
Davidson was a 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament last year, for what it's worth.
Moore and Punter are the assumed leaders of this team, two potential answers to the "who takes the last shot?" question. Both will look to replace Richardson's 16 points per game, while Punter should get the first crack at his point guard role. The Vols beat Davidson without the services of Robert Hubbs III, out with a minor injury, who is apparently still battling for a starting spot to join Punter, Moore, and Devon Baulkman.
If Barnes is successful this season, he will probably then have to figure out how to be successful without many of the reasons for success: those three players and Derek Reese are all seniors. Much of what Barnes can build here will ultimately be decided in recruiting, but Tennessee could also use a big year from younger players like Hubbs, Detrick Mostella, Jabari McGhee, or any of the newcomers so something is left behind to build on.
Tennessee enters the year 78th in Ken Pomeroy's projections, up 11 spots from last year's finish, and 10th in an SEC that gets very crowded after Kentucky at #2 and Vanderbilt at #20. Eight SEC teams fall between 39-78 in preseason KenPom. In Tennessee's non-conference schedule the Vols will potentially face five Top 100 KenPom foes, all away from Knoxville: at preseason #8 Gonzaga, at #29 Butler, at #85 Georgia Tech, and then #58 George Washington and either #14 Cincinnati or #137 Nebraska in Brooklyn.
With a decade of basketball tradition now built up, we saw last year that regardless of preseason projections, if the Vols can get off to a fast start there will be plenty of interest in this team. The names are old but the starring roles they'll be asked to play will be new. They should play a faster, higher scoring brand of basketball than many of us are used to. Can they win? That wouldn't be anything new for Rick Barnes. We'll get plenty of chances to find out between now and the end of November.