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Five Questions for Tennessee Basketball

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NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Louisiana State vs Tennessee Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re looking for something to distract you from the drama on the football side of things this week, rejoice: Rick Barnes’ Vols are back for their second year starting tonight, in exhibition play against Slippery Rock streaming on Watch ESPN at 7:00 PM ET.

Tennessee was picked 13th at SEC Media Days and enters the season just about where they left it in Ken Pomeroy’s preseason rankings: 103rd after a 15-19 campaign last year, 99th to open the 2016-17 season.

Gone are Kevin Punter’s 22.2 points per game, along with Armani Moore’s 12.2 points and 7.6 rebounds. The Vols also graduated Devon Baulkman and Derek Reese and bid farewell to Ray Kasongo via transfer to Iowa State. This is a young team: two seniors, one junior.

Here are our five biggest questions for this year’s squad:

Robert Hubbs, Alpha

The last tie to Cuonzo Martin on the roster, the former five-star guard has showed slow but steady improvement during his time in Knoxville, going from 5.0 to 7.2 to 10.6 points per game and raising a chilly 30.7 FG% as a freshman to 40.9% and 45.2%. His three point percentage took a significant drop last year from 33.3% to 23.9%, but otherwise he’s grown across the board.

The Vols will need his last step to be his biggest. Hubbs got off to a strong start last year, averaging 15.3 points in the first seven games before an injury set him back. He appeared to fall out of favor late in the year, but was strong in Tennessee’s three game SEC Tournament run including 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the quarterfinal loss to LSU.

Tennessee needs Hubbs to lead. The last two years we’ve seen Josh Richardson and Kevin Punter make their last step far bigger than we thought capable. We’ve always believed Hubbs’ ceiling was higher; the closer he gets, the better this year can be for Tennessee.

How will a true point guard help this team?

Last year Kevin Punter did a significant percentage of his great work with the ball in his hand, a modified point scorer as Josh Richardson was the year before. But whatever Hubbs does or doesn’t do this season, he’ll be able to do it playing more naturally off the ball.

We thought the answer to this question would be Lamonte Turner, a redshirt freshman ruled ineligible last season. But things seem to have shifted dramatically in the direction of true freshman Jordan Bone, whose brother Josh was a defensive specialist during Bruce Pearl’s time here.

Bone was rated the nation’s 32nd best point guard last year, and while there are a bunch of newcomers looking for playing time right away, Bone may already have the most secure spot.

How much better will the Vols be in the post?

We’ll see how much Kyle Alexander has improved, both physically and mentally in his second season. The Vols brought in graduate transfer Lew Evans from Utah State, who put up 8.4 points and 5.6 rebounds for the Aggies last year.

Beyond those two Tennessee can rely on Admiral Schofield to play a role similar to Armani Moore’s on this year’s team. Freshman John Fulkerson should also get plenty of chances early at 6’7”.

The Vols were playing Derek Reese at the five in some spots last season, so there should be at least more muscle to throw around. But this team’s identity may still be similar: going small, trying to force turnovers and score in transition, swarming post players and finding trouble against teams with good ball movement.

Which other newcomers will help right away?

Aside from Bone, Turner, Evans, and Fulkerson, Tennessee also has 6’5” forward Grant Williams, 6’1” guard Kwe Parker, 6’3” guard Jordan Bowden, and 6’5” guard Jalen Johnson. I would expect Barnes to utilize a deep rotation early; it’ll be interesting to see if guys like Shembari Phillips and Detrick Mostella will be challenged by any of these newcomers.

What does a good year look like?

Anything over .500 would be an improvement on the last two seasons, the NIT an outright success. Last year’s squad was able to navigate the non-conference portion without losing any games as a favorite. This year that label will be tested right away when Chattanooga comes calling next Friday; the Mocs are 97th in preseason KenPom. The Vols are in Maui and will face preseason #9 Wisconsin first on November 21. #14 Gonzaga in Nashville and #6 North Carolina on the road won’t make things easy, but it’s the in-state battles with Chattanooga and a road “trip” to ETSU that could be the most important games in the early going.

Playing so many freshmen means plenty of them are bound to hit the wall. Barnes and his staff will be challenged to firm up a rotation as SEC play rolls around, a conference with only Kentucky ranked and only Florida and Texas A&M joining them in KenPom’s Top 50. There are opportunities for wins in this league; we already saw Barnes get a couple of big ones last year. But consistency will be required to do something more than the 6-12 mark UT put up in league play last season. To be fair, the Vols were a tick better at 5-8 before Punter shut it down with injury. If point guard play opens up the offense, post defense takes a step forward, and enough young talent emerges to assist Hubbs, the Vols can be competitive in the league every night. But if those pieces don’t fall into place, especially early, it could be a bumpy ride.