The pile of drool that has become Kentucky basketball this offseason has overshadowed a lurking menace to the SEC in the form of Bruce Pearl's Volunteers.
I personally see very few arguments against the Vols being the heavy favorites in the SEC East. The Vols return every major contributor from last year's SEC East co-title team, add a talented newcomer, and have possibly the best coaching staff in the league.
Unlike the Wildcats, the Vols' preseason rankings—that all seem to be hovering around 10th—are deserved.
Pearl is an offensive coach, and this is well understood. He also likes his guards.
Both of these began to appear to be too obvious to Vols fans last season, as the team struggled to shut down opponents defensively and when the guards couldn't live up to their end of the bargain, their own offense collapsed.
In fact, in a Bruce Pearl oddity, it was the big men who carried Tennessee in 2008-09.
The Vols were physical and rebounded well, but struggled with ball-handling and shooting. Highly-touted freshman Scotty Hopson didn't live up to expectations and only one [backup] player averaged more than a third of their three-point attempts.
Despite the struggles in specific areas of the game, the Volunteers pushed their way into the NCAA Tournament and lost in the first round.
The offseason wasn't kind to the Vols, as their second potential all-star freshman Emmanuel Negedu went down to a heart condition and most assume his basketball career is over.
Josh Tabb, one of the most potential-filled players on the roster, was also suspended in September for an unspecified amount of time so he can "focus on academics". Look for his situation to be reassessed in December.
The Vols' recruits this season could help fill that void.
(No. 54 overall—No. 11 PF—6'9"—215lbs)
Hall is a versatile big-man. He's quick and has a limited face-up game, and is a competent shot-blocker.
His work ethic and competitive attitude make him stand out, and he should help with the Vols' depth under the basket this season.
While depth nor talent will be an issue for Pearl this season, the team needs to click on both offense and defense. An extra season with nearly the exact same players should help.
Tyler Smith —6'7", 215lb Senior SF
(17.4 PPG—5.8 RPG—1.63 A/TO—43.9% FG)
Smith is as close to as unclassifiable as is physically possible. The only thing he surely is NOT is a center. Past that, take your best guess.
He is an ultra-reliable player in every respect. He has an unlimited supply of energy and competitiveness, and is a dominating leader on the floor.
I'm a number Nazi, I admit this. But Smith is the only case in which I will shamelessly say his impact and ability hugely outstretches his efficiency.
He's the best ball-handling big(ish) man in the conference, and he is likely the smartest player in the league as well.
As Tyler Smith goes, the Vols go. He was named First-Team All-SEC this preseason, and will make a push for SEC Player of the Year.
Wayne Chism —6'9", 246lb Senior PF
(13.7 PPG—8.0 RPG—46.6% FG—32.0% 3PT)
Chism is easily amongst the most underrated players in the SEC. He ranks in the league's top 10 most efficient scorers, outranking even Tyler Smith. He's the third-most efficient returning rebounder. And that's just what the numbers can say.
Chism is dynamic and a massive mismatch for opponents. With his size, defenders tend to give him space at range, despite his numbers, and he more often than not makes them pay.
Chism is a game-changer overshadowed by game-changers. He should be a crucial piece of the puzzle for the Volunteers this season.
J.P. Prince —6'7", 205lb Senior PG
(9.9 PPG—4.2 RPG—57.2% FG—1.49 A/TO)
Prince is a slasher by default, as only 24 of his 222 attempts last season were from behind the arc. Good thing, though, as only three of those went in.
He's an explosive and athletic scorer, with speed and ball-handling skills. He's also a very talented on-ball defender and capable rebounder.
Prince plays an important role for the Vols, and should continue to do so this season.
Scotty Hopson —6'7", 200lb Sophomore SG
(9.2 PPG—2.7 RPG—42.8% FG—35.7% 3PT)
Hopson wasn't the one-and-done talent most expected, and the Vols needed, him to be a year ago.
Not only did he disappoint to some degree, he also limited team chemistry as a ball-hog. He attempted more threes than any other team member, despite making just 35.7 percent of them. His effort from the floor also left much to be desired.
Hopson needs to step up his effort on the defensive end of the floor and either shoot more reliably or become more of a team-player to keep from becoming a liability while on the floor.
Bobby Maze —6'3", 195lb Senior PG
(8.2 PPG—2.4 RPG—2.02 A/TO—109 AST)
Most pointed to point-guard play as the weakness for the Vols in 2008-09, and this wasn't the case for the most part.
In fact, Maze ranked second in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio and ninth in average assists.
He did, however, tend to shoot first and pass second. If either Smith or Chism wasn't available on the inside, he tended to shoot the ball a bit too often considering his lack of game-changing ability from that distance.
Maze should be solid for the Vols once again, though he needs to be more aware of the off-ball movements of his guards to maximize his team's offensive fluidity.
Cameron Tatum —6'6", 197lb Sophomore SF
(7.6 PPG—2.2 RPG—41.9% FG—32.1% 3PT)
Tatum is merely a roleplayer who gives his teammates some breathing time. His decision-making is suspect, his shooting is weak, and his effort level is questionable.
Tatum has a while to go before he can contribute to any degree on this talent-laden team.
Brian Williams —6'10", 278lb Junior C
(5.0 PPG—5.6 RPG—53.8% FG—20 BLK)
Williams is yet another thoroughly talented big-man that Pearl has filtered into the program, though not as versatile as the others. Williams' range is limited to near the basket—as most centers' are—and his rebounding is literally the most prolific and efficient in the league.
His sheer size is no doubt his strength. If he could work on his free-throw percentage, he could be a star for the Orange.
Josh Tabb —6'4", 195lb Senior PG
(3.4 PPG—1.8 RPG—50.6% FG—42.4% 3PT)
As I mentioned earlier, Tabb could be Tennessee's most potential-laden player. His stroke is phenomenal, but his motivation is lacking.
His effort is poor and his work ethic isn't great. If he would put his head into the game, he could be an X-Factor for the Vols.
Renaldo Woolridge —6'8", 208lb Sophomore SF
(2.6 PPG—1.3 RPG—1.55 A/TO—31.1% FG)
Woolridge provides some depth off the bench and handles the ball well, but does very little else.
Melvin Goins —5'11", 195lb Junior PG
(Transfer from Ball State)
Goins looks to provide competition for Maze at the starting point-guard spot. He is a pass-first point, who plays selflessly and has great awareness on fast-breaks. He's also more adept than Maze at defending in the press-style defense, which Pearl plans on employing more this season.
Goins could very well become the Vols' starting point-guard by SEC play.
The Volunteers have so many playmakers on the squad, that very well could be their weakness. With that number of players willing and able to score, it could be holding back the team's chemistry.
Cupcakes : Austin Peay (H), UNC Asheville (H), East Carolina (N), College of Charleston (H), East Tennessee St. (H), Middle Tennessee St. (N), Wyoming (H), North Carolina A&T (H), Charlotte (H)
Real Games : USC (A)
Marquee Matchups : Memphis (A), Kansas (H)
Opposite Division : Auburn (H), Ole Miss (H), Alabama (A), LSU (A), Arkansas (H), Mississippi State (A)
Predicted Result : (24-4, 13-3), NCAA Tournament
Analysis : The Vols' strength of schedule decreased a good bit this season from last season, with the non-conference losing a good number of high-powered mid-majors. There's only one truly difficult non-conference game, with the Jayhawks coming to Knoxville, and the SEC schedule sets up nicely for an SEC title run.
Points : 97.30 percent (1st—SEC Avg: 73.81 percent)
Rebounds : 94.50 percent (1st—SEC Avg: 75.80 percent)
This team has the pieces to make an NCAA Championship run. The talent is there. The depth is there.
The trick will be for those pieces to fit together.
For that to happen, a long-distance threat or two will need to emerge, and consistent pass-first point-guard play must emerge.
If it does, the nation could turn orange in April.