Coach Cuonzo Martin’s first year with Tennessee was always about next season.
Tournament talk started rising after the win at Florida to sweep the season series, and even more so after the season finale win over Vanderbilt to finish second in the SEC. The conference tournament set the stage for a possible dream ending to what started as a disastrous season.
However, proper perspective is essential to understand the gains made by this team. Considering the Vols began the season expected to finish 11th of 12 in the SEC, a No. 1 seed in the NIT seems like a colossal achievement.
The overtime loss to Ole Miss was devastating for those fans hoping for this romanticized run to the postseason, but the idea Tennessee could prove competitive in the big dance was wishful thinking at best. From the start, Martin has set his sights on the broader picture for the Tennessee program. He avoided unrealistic expectations, knowing full well the almost impossible situation he inherited from former coach Bruce Pearl.
With Martin’s commitment to building the foundation for the program, Tennessee’s early exit from the conference tournament and subsequent invite to the “second-tier” tournament isn’t a disappointing end to an up-and-down season. Rather, it’s a hard dose of reality, which will go for miles with a young team hungry to win.
With just one starter leaving (fifth-year senior Cam Tatum), the stage is set for the Vols to compete in a depleted SEC next season. Vanderbilt will likely replace its entire starting lineup, and Florida and Kentucky will lose most of its standouts to the NBA. JaMychal Green (Alabama), Terance Henry (Ole Miss), Arnett Moultrie and Dee Bost (Mississippi State) are all leaving after this season. (Moultrie will likely declare for the draft, while the other three are graduating seniors.)
This leaves the door wide open for Tennessee. Freshman Jarnell Stokes will have the benefit of a full off season in Knoxville, and Jerrone Maymon will look to build on his second team All-SEC season as the undisputed leader in the Vols locker room. Tennessee will also benefit from the addition Quinton Chievous, who redshirted last season and looks to replace Tatum on the wing.
This opportunity, however, is fleeting. With Maymon and perimeter specialist Skylar McBee graduating next season and Stokes’ draft stock uncertain, Martin may have just one shot to capitalize on this overachieving group.
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