Tennessee Basketball: Where Will the Volunteers Finish in the SEC?

Matt OveringContributor IIIOctober 30, 2012

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin.
Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin.Crystal LoGiudice-US PRESSWIRE

Tennessee received one first-place vote to win the SEC in 2012-13. A majority of the media at SEC media day predicted the Kentucky Wildcats, Missouri Tigers and Florida Gators to beat the Volunteers next season.

The Volunteers are pegged as the fourth-best team in the conference by voters across the nation as well. Kentucky, Florida and Missouri are all ranked in the preseason AP Top 25, and Tennessee is on the outside looking in.

But why?

As the second-best team in SEC play in 2011-12, Cuonzo Martin's team boasted a 10-6 record with tiebreakers over the Florida Gators and Vanderbilt Commodores.

Kentucky and Missouri lost nearly every contributor from their team from last year. Florida has the most returners out of the trio, but those are the same returners who lost to Tennessee twice last year.

If it wasn't for an undefeated Kentucky team, Martin probably would have won SEC coach of the year. He turned a program that lost two key players (Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson) into a contender in his very first year. No one expected the Vols to finish second in the SEC.

Tennessee is a proven team in a conference with loads of new faces. Voters place them below Kentucky, Missouri and Florida because of talent, not experience.

Jarnell Stokes is back for a full season, along with three other leading scorers for the Vols. Trae Golden will once again lead the offense, and Jeronne Maymon will provide senior leadership to the squad.

Leadership may be exactly what Tennessee needs. Road games were a huge struggle for the squad one year ago. Losses at Mississippi State, Georgia and Vanderbilt at the beginning of conference play put the squad in a hole. 

But after a loss at Kentucky on Jan. 31, the team turned around.They had a 2-5 record in conference and went on to win eight of their next nine.

Whatever caused this excellent turnaround, Tennessee will be out to prove that it wasn't a fluke. They are a top-four team in the SEC, with Arkansas nipping at their heels. 

Will the Volunteers win tough road games and join the SEC elite? Or, will they underperform and wallow as a bubble team the entire season?