We’re in the heart of football season, I mean it’s Florida week, but I can’t stop looking ahead to the basketball season. This is nothing against the football team, as I think we’re moving in the right direction, even after the thumping we received from Oregon. I’m just really excited about the basketball program as a whole this year.
We have a team that is returning it’s two top scorers in Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes and both of these guys are practical locks as NBA draft picks in 2014.
Tennessee is getting Jeronne Maymon back and I think he can pick up right where he left off from 2011-12, and even improve on his numbers. Maymon will be a critical piece of a Vols squad that likes to play physical, but is loaded with talented guards. He and Stokes (and possibly Rawane Ndiaye when he learns the system) will need to have a very large presence if the Vols want to keep that physical mentality in and around the paint.
The Vols are getting two ready-now players in Memphis transfer Antonio Barton and 5-star freshman guard Robert Hubbs. Barton will be the first true PG the Vols have had under Martin, and he’s a smart player that will pick up the system fast. Hubbs is an outstanding athlete that can score in many ways. He is also very unselfish and like Barton, a smart player who could see significant time if he adapts to the college game quickly. It is likely though that Hubbs will sub for Barton in an effort to learn the “1″ position, or share time with Richardson in the “3″, assuming Vols go 3 guards on the floor a majority of the time.
Last, but certainly not least, is the schedule. For the first time in over six decades, Tennessee will only play Kentucky once, and that will be in Lexington. But they only face the ‘Cats once. They will also only face Alabama and Ole Miss from the west once each. While the SEC schedule looks manageable, the non-conference slate looks even better.
Tennessee will travel to the Bahamas to play in the Battle for Atlantis, with the field including Xavier, Iowa, UTEP, USC, Villanova, Wake Forest, and Kansas, in late November. But other than that, the schedule out of conference is pretty vanilla. The toughest opponents Tennessee will face outside of the Thanksgiving weekend tournament are Xavier, Wichita State, NC State, and Virginia. The game at WSU might be the toughest game of the early season, as they play in a very competitive mid-major conference, and their fan base creates a raucous environment at home.
Xavier is a team that Tennessee beat in Thompson-Boling Arena last year, and will have to travel to the Cintas Center in Cincinnati to play them again. That match-up will be the first game of the season for Tennessee, and it will be a tough environment to play in. Xavier has traditionally been one of the best mid-major programs in the last decade, right up there with Gonzaga and Butler, but they lost a lot of talent after the 2011-12 season and it showed last year. The Musketeers are fairly young again this year, only returning one player who averaged double-digit points per game in Travis Taylor. They return four players who scored an average of 7 or more PPG, but the numbers aren’t eye-popping to say the least.
NC State and Virginia are two ACC teams that Tennessee will the luxury of getting to play at home this season instead of on the road.
The Vols and Cavaliers met in Charlottesville, Va last season in what was a low-scoring affair that had the Cavs coming out on top. They were a 23-win team a year ago, and they return their leading scorer, Joe Harris, who averaged over 16 PPG last season. Their returning points after that take a leap down to Justin Anderson, who averaged 7.6, and Mike Tobey, who averaged 6.8 per game in 2012-13. Expect a higher-scoring game between Tennessee and Virginia, with both likely to play 3 guards at any given time. But Tennessee has a size and physicality advantage over the Cavaliers.
NC State is a well-coached team that had a nice season last year, finishing fourth in the ACC and earning 24 wins on their way to the NCAA Tournament. However, a vast majority of the players who saw time on the court last year are gone from the team. Of the top seven scorers from the Wolfpack a year ago, only two are returning, and only Warren had a respectable point average with over 12 per game.
The home games against the ACC opponents and the road games at mid-major programs with formidable home environments will prove to be good tests for the Tennessee basketball team before they start SEC play, but are all also games that the Volunteers should win.
The rest of the non-conference schedule includes home match-ups with USC-Upstate, The Citadel, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, Morehead State, and Tusculum. Of all of these games, the only one I see to pose a threat for the Vols is Morehead State. They’re an OVC program that has had some success in recent years, but like a good number of UT’s non-conference opponents, is going through roster transition. With that in mind, Tennessee should go undefeated against these teams, barring an extremely poor performance (such as the game against APSU in 2011).
At this time, my prediction for the non-conference record for the Vols this season is 11-2. I think the Vols sweep the easy home games, take three out of four from the games against Xavier, Wichita State, Virginia, and NC State, and go 2-1 in the Battle For Atlantis, likely beating UTEP and Xavier, before falling to Kansas in the championship game.
If Tennessee can go 11-2, or even better, 12-1, in November and December, it will give them the confidence to get through the SEC schedule and if they can win half their SEC games (18 reg-season), they will still finish with a 20-win regular season.