Rick Barnes, Year Two begins tonight as the Mocs make a quick drive up I-75 to Thompson-Boling Arena for a 7:00 PM tip. As season openers with seven freshmen on the roster go, this won’t be the easiest.
Chattanooga was 29-5 last year and won the SoCon at 15-3. They earned a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament but had no luck against Indiana in a 99-74 Round of 64 loss. And they did almost all of that without 6’5” guard/forward Casey Jones, who was the preseason SoCon player of the year before dislocating his ankle in a December practice and taking a medical redshirt. He’s back for a second look at his senior season, putting in a dozen points in their exhibition win last week. In 2014-15 he averaged 14.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game and led the team in scoring in the eight games he played last year.
Fellow senior guard Tre McLean is the second-leading returning scorer with 12.1 and 36.5% from three last season; he scored 20 in 27 minutes on 9-of-11 shooting against Covenant in the exhibition. Fellow senior 6’10” Justin Tuoyo is the third-leading returning scorer - you’ll notice a pattern - who transferred from VCU two seasons ago and has scored double figures and averaged 2-3 blocks per game in each of his two seasons with the Mocs. And, you guessed it, fellow senior guard Greg Pryor is the fourth-leading returning scorer at 9.8 points and led the team in assists after Jones went down. In Matt McCall’s first season - a former Billy Donovan assistant at Florida - the Mocs were 18th nationally in steals and 30th in blocked shots.
This bunch went to Georgia in last year’s season opener and won in overtime. Then they won at Dayton in December. This many seniors and that much experience, they’re not going to be intimidated by playing Tennessee. In fact, they might be tempted to look ahead: they’re at Chapel Hill on Sunday.
Tennessee is a four-point favorite, but much of what will constitute Tennessee will be thrown head first into the deep end. You assume a talent advantage in this match-up, and while that’s still true when it comes to guys like Robert Hubbs, it’s going to take a lot from a lot of newcomers to get this done.
Jordan Bone and John Fulkerson made the biggest splashes in Tennessee’s exhibition win last week, but we’ll probably still get a chance to see most if not all of these kids as the Vols try to sort out a rotation. Six true freshmen and now-eligible Lamonte Turner will join 6’7” graduate transfer Lew Evans and Tennessee’s five returning contributors: Robert Hubbs, Admiral Schofield, Detrick Mostella, Shembari Phillips, and Kyle Alexander. The Vols are more athletic this season and might ultimately prove to be more talented, but they’ll have to figure out right away how to replace the production of Kevin Punter and Armani Moore. It will be an interesting question to watch them try to answer, but the first opportunity to do so will be quite a challenge.
7:00 PM, available online at SEC Network+.