Cuonzo Martin's Tennessee Volunteers have high expectations and plenty of promise to back it up in 2013-14. Despite only playing in the NIT a year ago, the Vols are projected to finish third in the SEC, only behind the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats and the Florida Gators.
Trae Golden decided to transfer to Georgia Tech, but three of their top four scorers are back. Martin also brought in a five-star recruit, while Jeronne Maymon will return from an injury that forced him to redshirt a year ago.
While preseason expectations are high, Martin and the Volunteers have to deliver. Martin coached teams have yet to make an NCAA Tournament, though he has made three NIT appearances in his five seasons, between his time at Missouri State and Tennessee.
The following preview will offer a look at the team's roster, projected rotation, key incoming players, key returners, best- and worst-case scenarios, while finally diving into a prediction of how Tennessee's season will end up.
Robert Hubbs- As the 23rd-ranked player in the 2013 recruiting, per Rivals, the 5-star rated Hubbs will be a key contributor off the Volunteer bench during his first collegiate season. Hubbs is a freak athlete, who will wow fans by rising up and finishing above the rim.
Hubbs is a scorer but could add a little muscle to help him finish in the paint. Hubbs will have the chance to play extended minutes at either wing position. Coming from the state of Tennessee, Volunteer fans will love him from Day 1.
Darius Thompson- Just cracking the Rivals top 150 players, the 149th-ranked Thompson will also be given a chance to log minutes as a true freshman. Thompson is also homegrown, and as a combo guard, will be given ball-handling and scoring responsibilities.
He can score and pass, as evidenced by his 16-point and six-assist average as a high school senior. Thompson had originally committed to Vanderbilt, though he decommitted in February, signing with Tennessee just a month later.
Antonio Barton- After three seasons at Memphis, Barton decided to take his talents elsewhere in the state and will be able to play immediately, as he has already graduated. Barton missed the team's exhibition win on Saturday with a leg injury, though Martin is confident he'll be ready for the season opener.
Barton averaged 5.6 points and 1.1 assists last season, posting better numbers during his freshman and sophomore years. He has connected on over 40 percent of his three-point looks in all three seasons. With Golden's decision to leave UT and Barton's diminishing playing time to Joe Jackson, things worked out well.
Jordan McRae- This senior has improved by leaps and bounds since arriving at UT. As a freshman, he was seldom used and averaged 1.8 points in 5.3 minutes. As a sophomore, his numbers jumped to 8.6 points in 21.7 minutes, before a breakthrough junior season in which he averaged 15.7 points in 33.6 minutes.
McRae can do more than score however, as he also added 4.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists. McRae is a workhorse who keeps himself involved in games on both ends. McRae made 77 percent of his 4.6 free-throw attempts per game, while connecting on 36 percent of his 5.1 three-point tosses.
Jarnell Stokes- After finishing his high school career a semester early, Stokes enrolled to play for Tennessee in the 2012 spring semester. Stokes averaged 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds during that half season, while only facing SEC competition.
As a sophomore, his numbers improved to 12.4 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.1 blocked shots in 28.8 minutes. Stokes needs to improve his free-throw stroke, but having Jeronne Maymon back in the frontcourt should help avert opponent's attention from him. This will be the two's first full season together.
Josh Richardson- The team's best on-ball defender a year ago, Richardson is primed for a big junior season. Last year, Richardson averaged 7.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.1 steals in 30.7 minutes of playing time.
Richardson's outside shot could use improvement, as he converted on only 22 percent of his looks from deep as an underclassman. Martin has made a point of saying he would like to use Richardson more on the offensive end of the court in 2013-14.
1 Josh Richardson G 6'6" 196 JR Edmond, OK
2 Antonio Barton G 6'2" 180 SR Baltimore, MD
3 Robert Hubbs III G 6'6" 206 FR Newbern, TN
4 Armani Moore G 6'5" 215 SO Kennesaw, GA
5 Jarnell Stokes F 6'8" 260 JR Memphis, TN
10 Rawane Ndiaye C 6'10" 275 JR Raleigh, NC
15 Darius Thompson G 6'5" 18 FR Murfreesboro, TN
21 A.J. Davis G-F 6'9" 212 FR Buford, GA
23 Derek Reese G 6'8" 220 SO Orlando, FL
24 Brandon Lopez G 6'1" 180 JR Knoxville, TN
25 Galen Campbell G 6'2" 190 SO Knoxville, TN
31 Quinton Chievous G 6'6" 214 SO Chicago, IL
32 D'Montre Edwards G 6'6" 205 SR Charleston, SC
34 Jeronne Maymon F 6'8" 260 SR Madison, WI
52 Jordan McRae G 6'6" 185 SR Midway, GA
Others: Darius Thompson, Quinton Chievous, Rawane Ndiaye
Bench: A.J. Davis, Brandon Lopez, Galen Campbell, D'Montrae Edwards
Jeronne Maymon-A Madison, Wisconsin native and former Marquette player, Maymon will play his redshirt senior season in 2013-14. After a freshman season at Marquette and bench role as a sophomore at Tennesse, Maymon broke out with 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds in 28.1 minutes as a junior.
Last season, Maymon had to sit with a knee injury. Maymon is an excellent rebounder and will be able to draw fouls with regularity. Though Stokes and Maymon are a junior and redshirt senior, respectively, the two have only played a combined 106 career collegiate games, 17 being played together. Look for them to form one of the nation's top frontcourt duos.
Quinton Chievous-After redshirting in 2011-12, Chievous scored 2.5 points and grabbed 2.4 rebounds in 10.2 minutes last season. Chievous, who came to Tennessee from Chicago. A 6'6" athletic wing, Chievous played his best basketball at the tail end of last season.
During the Volunteers final four games last March, Chievous scored seven points twice and reached double figures at 10 points in an SEC Tournament win over Mississippi State. He also grabbed four rebounds twice and five once during that same span. Look for Chievous' role to increase and his confidence to grow.
Best-Case Scenario: Elite Eight
Tennessee will get a taste of top-notch competition when they take on UK and UF. The Wildcats are deep, young and talented, while Florida has a strong and steady frontcourt. Both teams will prepare the Volunteers for the tournament they so long for, the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee will be well-rounded with guards and bigs, youth and experience. Now, they simply need to put their practice into play. Depending on seed, opponent and venue, Tennessee could reach the Elite Eight, just as they did in 2010 before falling to the Michigan State Spartans.
Worst-Case Scenario: NIT Bid
Though making the NIT isn't the worst thing in the world, it just may be for this year's Tennessee squad. As previously mentioned, Martin has never coached an NCAA tournament team. This is the year for that to change, so anything less than the NCAA tournament would be a major disappointment.
In the 14-team SEC, Tennessee simply needs to finish in the league's top five or six to be assured a place in March Madness. Teams like LSU, Alabama, Missouri and Ole Miss have talent but are in the second tier of the league like Tennessee, after perennial powerhouses Kentucky and Florida.
Prediction: 24-9 (13-5), At-Large Bid, NCAA Tournament Sweet 16
The Volunteers enter the season as the top team receiving votes in the AP Poll, essentially meaning they're ranked 26th. Given the opportunity to get back to the NCAA tournament, I see the Vols outplaying their preseason ranking and advancing to the NCAA tournament's second weekend.
The Volunteers nonconference schedule isn't overly challenging, though they do travel to Xavier and Wichita State. In conference play, they hope to improve on an 11-7 league mark from a year ago. As predicted, Tennessee finishes third in the SEC, behind Kentucky and Florida.
Tennessee will earn themselves a No. 5 seed when the NCAA tournament pairings come out. They will avoid the dreaded 5th vs. 12th-seeded upset in the opening round, before pulling off a mini upset over a fourth-seeded squad. The season will end in the Sweet 16, against top competition, though the season will be considered a major success.