The Rick Barnes Era tips off tonight at 7:00 PM ET (on SEC Network+), as college basketball's 2015-16 season gets underway. It starts with UNC Asheville, coming off a 15-16 (10-8) year in the Big South Conference. The Bulldogs last made the NCAA Tournament in 2012, narrowly missing against Cuonzo Martin's first team along the way. The Vols beat Asheville by seven in Puerto Rico the next year; the Bulldogs have won 10 games in the Big South in each of the last three years.
The Bulldogs lost guard Andrew Rowsey via transfer to Marquette; Rowsey led Asheville in scoring with 19.2 points last season. Junior guard David Robertson is back and will look to pick up the slack after finishing second in scoring last year at 10.7 points per game. Asheville was one of the best free throw shooting teams in the country last year at 73.7%, though losing Rowsey's 92.1% from the line won't help. The Bulldogs also averaged 21.2 three pointers attempted last year, which brings us to the first talking point...
How will the Vols look running & gunning?
As we covered in our preview, Rick Barnes wants the Vols to play fast and shoot threes. This can be both the fastest way to cover up size and defensive deficiencies, and the fastest way to get beat by teams who shouldn't beat you when they aren't falling. The style should be entertaining, but that will ultimately be based on whether the Vols can win doing it. If Asheville still plays the same style, we could see a ton of points tomorrow night. Check out Chris Dortch's website for more insight on how the Vols should look under Barnes.
How will the newcomers look?
6'2" guard Shembari Phillips and 6'5" Armani Moore-clone Admiral Schofield will draw natural interest, but the most important newcomers are the Canadian duo of Ray Kasongo and Kyle Alexander on the block. Kasongo comes with a season of junior college ball under his belt, giving him another year to add to his 6'8" frame. Alexander, a true freshman, is an inch taller but is listed as 30 pounds lighter at 215. Both could evolve into athletic bigs who take advantage of next-level wingspans. For now, we just need them to be able to survive. Even if Tennessee trots out their four-seniors-and-Robert-Hubbs lineup to start, with no other options in the post (now that we're listing Jabari McGhee at 6'5" instead of 6'8") the Vols will have to play one or both of these kids significant minutes, early and often.
Does this team have an alpha scorer?
It will take more than one game to answer this question, and I hope we can avoid the "Who takes the last shot?" question against a Big South team. But I'm curious to see how productivity will be dispersed between Kevin Punter, Armani Moore, Robert Hubbs and potentially one or two others. Does Punter, the primary ball handler, lead the team in scoring most nights the way Josh Richardson did last year? Does Hubbs, the team's highest-rated player, take a step in his junior season and lead? Or can the Vols get it from two or three of them on any given night and thus hopefully be harder to shut down against better defensive teams?
I don't think Asheville will be that, but either way we start getting answers tonight, with a trip to Georgia Tech just around the corner on Monday.