From 2006 to 2011, the Tennessee Volunteers were a fixture in the NCAA tournament. Then the Pearl era collapsed. The men’s basketball program had reached the crossroads — Enter Cuonzo Martin.
Martin is about to enter his third year at the helm of the Tennessee basketball program, and the Vols have missed the last two NCAA tournaments. The 39 wins over the last two seasons have not been enough.
The ’11-12 Vols were plagued by a rough start to the season, but were able to bounce back and finish second in the SEC. That team was left out of the NCAA Tournament and lost to MTSU at home in the second round of the NIT.
The ’12-13 Vols were thought to have a solid shot at making it into the Big Dance. Jeronne Maymon then went down with a season-ending injury. The Vols showed at times that they could make it without him, but losing five of six in the middle of the season and opening SEC play at 1-4 were some big hits to take on the NCAA resume. UT entered the second round of the SEC tournament on the NCAA bubble. They had to face Alabama, a fellow bubble squad, and lost by 10. The Vols were skipped over once again, and that took it’s toll on the team. In fact, it hurt them so much that they played flat in their first game of the NIT, falling to Mercer at home.
So the Martin era has brought us two mediocre seasons full of negativity, two missed NCAA tournaments, and two embarrassing losses at home in the NIT. Coach Cuonzo Martin is also thought by many to be on the “Hot Seat”. By this point, you probably think I’m crazy for saying that Tennessee will make the NCAA tournament. But even after all of that, I am confident in saying the Vols will be in the field of 68 (still feels weird saying that new number), and now I’m going to outline why.
1. The Stars
Senior guard Jordan McRae and junior forward Jarnell Stokes are thought to be some of the best talent UT has had in a while, and are easily the two most popular names in conversations about Vols that could play in the NBA. Both looked into their draft stock at the end of last season, and decided to return to Rocky Top. Jordan was invited to Kevin Durant’s camp and performed so well, that he was invited to LeBron’s camp the next weekend. They are the two leading scorers on this team. McRae turned into a go-to player for Martin and showed a remarkable ability to take games over and score at will. Stokes was criticized for his toughness in the paint at time, but when he was on, it was almost impossible to guard him down low. Stokes was also a rebounding machine. I think that both Stokes and McRae have the potential to improve on 2012-13 and take their game to the next level. I’m looking to see McRae continue to be a dominant presence on the court and for Stokes to improve his free throw shooting and consistency in the paint. These two alone will make a dangerous inside/outside combo.
2. The Comeback Kid (Man)
We all missed Jeronne Maymon last year. It was tough to play the waiting and guessing games through the first half of the season before they decided to redshirt him. At the end of last season and in summer workouts he’s performed very well and shown that he should be able to contribute to the team in a lot of ways. The only question mark I have for him is his game conditioning. It’s one thing to do court sprints from the baselines, but it’s another to play significant minutes in an SEC game. He’s admitted himself that he’s lost a little bit of his speed, but has been working to regain it. I can see him getting off to a slow start, but I think he’ll continue his play from earlier in his career, or even improve. This is his last crack at it for the Big Orange, and I think he’s up for the challenge and will be that leader on the court that Martin needs.
3. The New Guys
The two new guys that I’m most excited about are Memphis transfer Antonio Barton, and incoming freshman Robert Hubbs. Barton will give us our first true PG in a while, and Hubbs will be a flex 1-2 type guard that can learn to manage games early on. Antonio comes from a winning program in Memphis, and while his numbers may not reflect just how good of get he is for Tennessee, his numbers against the Vols are. The freshman, Hubbs, came to Knoxville over the summer and showcased some of his skills in the Pilot Rocky Top League. The league is known for being offense-heavy, and Hubbs fit in well with some dunks and some very creative shots. One negative was that he wasn’t very aggressive with the ball all the time. I think that after a few games in a Vols uniform, he’ll come into his own and make the best of his playing time. Darius Thompson and AJ Davis are also solid players coming to The Hill and will provide some depth on the UT roster.
4. The Schedule
This year, the schedule doesn’t look too daunting. In non-conference action, the biggest challenges the team will face are @Xavier, @Wichita St, NC St, Virginia, and whoever they face in the Battle For Atlantis. Both of those road games will be interesting, particularly WSU. Other than those games though, the schedule is pretty Vanilla and if the Vols are playing well, they should walk all over the rest of the non-conference opponents. In the SEC schedule, the Vols won’t face UK twice for the first time in 60 years.The only game between the two bitter rivals will be in Lexington, and that spells doom for the Big Orange. They will play Texas A&M twice this season, and those games won’t be cake-walks (see the 4OT win in College Station last season). UT will play Florida twice this year as well, and the Vols are undefeated against the Gators under Martin. Other big games in the conference to watch are @Alabama, a football rivalry that is quickly spreading to the court, both games against Missouri are going to be interesting match-ups, and the Vols have a home game against Marshall Henderson and the Ole Miss Rebels. While this year’s schedule isn’t going to rank at the top of SOS lists, I think it is still a strong enough schedule that if the Vols were to get 20-22 regular-season wins, they should practically be a lock for the NCAA tournament. I am a believer that the SEC is getting better as a basketball league, with Ole Miss performing well again, Tennessee getting stronger, and schools like Alabama, Arkansas, and even Georgia getting better over time. This should help Tennessee come tournament time.
5. The Pressure To Perform
After not meeting expectations in the first two seasons (and with Pearl’s show-cause ban about to end), Martin has fallen on the hot seat, and that will provide some extra pressure for this year’s team to perform. But even with that, the hype around this team will be high. This group will be chomping at the bit to turn things around on and make it back to the Big Dance. I think that the devastation of being left out last year will be a huge motivating factor. The Vols return a team that has two future NBA players, a few solid role players, and make great additions with the Memphis transfer, and the commitment of the five-star player, Robert Hubbs. Many are thinking that with all of this veteran talent, the Vols are a favorite to be in the preseason top 25. That should be enough to get the fan base excited about basketball again and support this team. There’s no reason we should see those dreaded black curtains in the upper deck of Thompson-Boling Arena this year. If Tennessee can get off to a fast start, the home environment will play a big factor in whether the Vols win a close game or lose, and their home record over the last few years shows that the Big Orange faithful are a group with heavy impact.
With all of the talent that Tennessee will put on the court this season, and a schedule that shows some mercy, they have a very good chance at getting back into the field of 68 (yep, still awkward). The Volunteers just need to play their game and not have those sub-par stretches that have been a trademark of the last two unsuccessful seasons. A 5 of 6 game losing streak with this schedule could spell doom for UT, but I’m optimistic that we’ll see a very consistent group of Vols.