In Knoxville, basketball season couldn’t get here fast enough.
With another dismal football season coming to a close, the Sunsphere is all aglow (Knoxville joke) with the high hopes surrounding second-year coach Cuonzo Martin and the Vols as they tip off game one Friday night against Kennesaw State (Atlantic Sun).
After an impressive, 99-point exhibition win over Victory University on Monday and a “good experience” (as coach Martin described) in a secret scrimmage against Georgia Tech last week, here are four key story lines heading into the season.
You cannot overstate Jeronne Maymon’s importance to Tennessee. He is the team’s outspoken leader, dominant post player and cornerstone to Martin’s tough defensive style.
The 6‘7” senior, however, will start the season on the sidelines after what Martin called a “setback” in his recovery following arthroscopic knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. The team has stayed mum on any details regarding Maymon’s recovery, but Brendan Quinn of GoVolsXtra.com reported he was recently seen using crutches (although he was later seen without them).
A prolonged absence from Maymon would be devastating to a team with high expectations this season. The Vols can survive their first two match-ups against Kennesaw St. and UNC Asheville, but the team has little to no chance without its leader against a challenging, non-conference schedule that includes a possible match-up with NC State in Puerto Rico, as well as trips to Georgetown and Virginia.
Quinton Chievous has not had the college experience he was expecting when he signed with Tennessee. But after a coaching change, a redshirt year and a new position, Chievous is primed to make his mark on the SEC.
The son of former Missouri star and NBA first-rounder Derrick Chievous, the redshirt freshman came to Tennessee expecting to play as a wing/shooting guard. But Martin decided to move him to power forward despite being undersized at 6’5”.
That confidence in his ability against bigger competition could be a shot in the arm for Chievous, and Martin is gambling on his ability to accept the challenge.
Kenny Hall is going into his final year of frustrating the hell out of Tennessee fans. He’s made a habit of negating his flashes of potential with mediocre play and poor decision-making (like whatever he did that made Martin suspend him the final nine games of last season).
Ironically, though, Hall could ultimately be the most important piece for the Vols this season.
Hear me out.
Hall has migrated in and out of the starting lineup for almost two seasons. He has first-team talent with an ability to put up solid numbers against elite teams (12 rebounds against Pitt and a double-digit scoring performance against Florida last season).
As a bench player when Maymon returns, Hall could provide a level of depth that few teams in the SEC have. (Think Nick Collison’s role with OKC.) He doesn’t have to fill a stat sheet; he just needs to provide a strong post presence and pull a defender off other scorers.
Throw in an occasional breakout game, and Hall might finish out his career at Tennessee with a little redemption.
This isn’t as much a question as it is an expectation. Stokes is the type of player NBA scouts dream about. The combination of size (6’8”, 270), composure (joined the team at age 17) and dominant play under the basket is in high demand as the league moves more toward using power forwards over natural centers. Stokes would already be a lottery pick if the draft happened tomorrow.
So Martin and co. will be hard-pressed to make the most of Stokes' lone full season in Knoxville, but the Vols have the supporting cast to make it work.
He’ll be Tennessee’s No. 1 option to start the season and should have multiple scoring opportunities if the team’s helter-skelter backcourt can be more consistent than last year. If senior Skylar McBee, in particular, can rediscover his range from the three-point line, Stokes could be a conference Player of the Year candidate.