Tennessee Basketball: 6 Keys to a Successful Vols Season
Cuonzo Martin enjoyed an outstanding coaching debut at Tennessee last year, but now he needs to return his Volunteers to NCAA tournament contention.
With four starters back from what had been an inexperienced roster, Tennessee should be a dangerous sleeper in an SEC that lost quite a bit of talent from its 2011-12 rosters.
For the Vols to follow through on their substantial promise, they’ll need to build on the strengths that carried them a season ago. Martin’s fast-paced offense made Tennessee a dangerous three-point shooting team, and it'll be even tougher to guard if catch-and-shoot threats such as Skylar McBee can add some new tricks to their offensive games.
Read on for more on McBee and the rest of the six biggest factors in putting Tennessee back in the March Madness conversation in 2012-13.
6. Find Some Help for Trae Golden
Trae Golden was a revelation running the point for Tennessee a season ago, but he’s also the only thing keeping the Volunteers offense flowing.
Aside from his 4.5 assists per game, the next-highest average for a returning player is 1.5 a night, from swingman Jordan McRae.
Establishing a viable backup for Golden will be a priority for head coach Cuonzo Martin, whose bench is pretty thin in general behind senior power forward Kenny Hall.
In addition, the Vols will be a lot better off if the rest of the starters—especially McRae and likely third guard Skylar McBee—focus a little more on setting up their teammates instead of looking only for their own opportunities.
5. Turn Up the Defensive Pressure
With a combined 530 pounds of low-post muscle, Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon will continue to make life miserable for opponents looking to score in the paint.
For the Vols’ perimeter defense to match their interior toughness, though, they’ll need to force some more turnovers.
Only one Tennessee player averaged as many as 1.0 steals per game a season ago, and that was the 6’7” Maymon (who may miss some early games as he continues his recovery from offseason knee surgery, according to the Associated Press, h/t SFGate.com).
Now that standout defender Skylar McBee is likely joining the starting lineup, the time is right for the Tennessee guards to take a few more chances on steals and enjoy the resulting easy scoring opportunities.
4. Feed the Hot Hand
One of Tennessee’s biggest advantages this season is going to be a starting lineup in which all five players are legitimate scoring threats. To get the most out of that offensive balance, the Vols have to concentrate on playing unselfish basketball.
On any given night, the matchups could favor Trae Golden (last year’s leading scorer at 13.6 points per game), but they could just as easily make swingman Jordan McRae or power forward Jarnell Stokes the most dangerous weapon in the offense.
Tennessee has to be sure to exploit those advantages rather than worrying about who’s getting how many shots in any particular game.
3. Don’t Panic
Douglas Adams’ advice to galactic hitchhikers will serve Tennessee well in 2012-13.
Before the season is a month old, the Vols will have faced road games at Georgetown and Virginia, and that’s only a warm-up for a schedule that also features No. 17 Missouri, No. 16 Memphis, No. 10 Florida and No. 3 Kentucky (twice).
With that many high-powered opponents to face, Tennessee is guaranteed to take some bad losses, but it can’t afford to let its confidence be shaken by any one game.
By avoiding extended losing streaks like the four-game skid that wrecked their non-conference record a year ago, the Vols can take advantage of the many beatable foes on their schedule and stay in position to challenge for a spot in the Big Dance come March.
2. Expand Skylar McBee’s Role in the Offense
With steady swingman Cameron Tatum lost to graduation, there’s a spot open in the Vols starting lineup, and former walk-on Skylar McBee looks like the best option to fill it.
The 6’3” shooting guard came off the bench to lead the team with 63 three-pointers made on .391 shooting while also playing impressive defense.
For all his long-range prowess, though, McBee scored just 6.6 points per game last season, attempting a microscopic total of 19 shots from inside the three-point line.
By adding to his offensive repertoire—whether off the dribble or on mid-range tries—McBee can keep the defense honest and become a far more valuable scoring threat as a senior.
1. Establish the Inside Game
Tennessee has plenty of outstanding three-point shooters, but—as Duke learned in last year’s NCAA tournament—even the best offenses have nights when the jump shots aren’t falling.
The best remedy is to pound the ball into the low post, and Tennessee has two formidable options to carry that banner this season.
With 6’7”, 260-pound Jeronne Maymon and 6’8”, 270-pound Jarnell Stokes manning the frontcourt, Tennessee should be able to beat plenty of teams with power as well as finesse.
The duo combined for 22.3 points per game last season, and the more touches they get, the more opportunities will open up for Tennessee’s long-range gunners to pick apart opposing defenses.