Since Head Coach Bruce Pearl came to Rocky Top in 2005, the Tennessee Volunteers have consistently challenged themselves in nonconference play. The 2009-10 schedule is a bit lighter than in recent years, but Tennessee still has plenty of interesting games on the docket before SEC play begins on Jan. 14.
Below, I discuss the five most intriguing games on Tennessee's 2009-10 nonconference schedule.
5. Tennessee v. Charlotte: Jan. 6, 2010.
One thing that has particularly impressed me about Bruce Pearl's schedules is that the Vols consistently play mid-major programs. This includes games against traditional mid-major powers such as Gonzaga, but also includes games like this one and a December matchup against Wyoming.
The 49ers aren't fielding a particularly strong team this year--they were picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic 10 in the conferences' preseason poll--but it is good for basketball when teams from power conferences are willing to play teams from second-tier conferences.
A game against the Vols will represent a chance for Charlotte to notch a marquee win, no matter how unlikely, so Dijuan Harris and the 49ers will certainly come ready to play. I predicted a trap game when Tennessee played Temple last year, and the timing of this game is similarly precarious, as the Vols play pre-season No. 1 Kansas (more on that in a bit) four days later. Tennessee can't afford to come out flat against an A-10 opponent two years in a row.
4. Tennessee at USC: Dec. 19, 2009.
Another component of Pearl's schedules that has always been impressive is his willingness to take his team on the road. A trip to Southern California is certainly no exception to this rule.
Like the 49ers, the Trojans aren't fielding one of their stronger teams; Senior stalwarts Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett have graduated, and former freshman sensation Demar DeRozan is now a Toronto Raptor. But there is still some talent on this roster, and Dwight Lewis will provide a good early test for the Vols' defensive backcourt.
Regardless of the level of competition, a cross-country trip is always a good experience for a college basketball team; you never know where you will have to travel to during the NCAA Tournament, so it can't hurt to get that first long trip out of the way in December.
3. U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam: Nov. 20-23, 2009.
The Paradise Jam should provide the Vols with a nice mixture of opponents; it represents the first big test (or series of tests) of Tennessee's 2009-10 schedule.
The Vols are the de facto No. 2 seed in the tournament, but there are no truly bad teams (like South Dakota State, who Purdue plays in the first round) on their half of the bracket. That said, the Vols should be able to defeat East Carolina in the first round and the DePaul/Northern Iowa winner in the semfinals, setting up a probable matchup with preseason No. 7 Purdue in the tournament final.
If this final were to take place, it would be one of the biggest games of Thanksgiving week, if not the biggest. The matchup between Tyler Smith and Robbie Hummel would be worth the price of admission alone, and a game against Purdue is probably the only one in which the Vols would be underdogs in 2009.
2. Tennessee at Memphis: Dec. 31, 2009.
Normally, a game against an unranked conference USA team wouldn't be worthy of the second spot on this list. But Memphis isn't just any conference USA team, and Tennessee-Memphis isn't just another game.
Plus, Memphis isn't exactly devoid of talent this year. They may not have a player of the caliber of Derrick Rose or Tyreke Evans, but Willie Kemp, Doneal Mack, and Duke transfer Elliot Williams form a pretty decent nucleus.
Add that the game is in Memphis, on New Year's Eve, and that the games between these two teams the last two years have had a total margin of victory of three points, and this contest will certainly be worth the price of admission.
1. Tennessee v. Kansas: January 10, 2010.
The Vols conclude their nonconference season with a shot at the preseason No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks. At this point, it seems as if there would be no better barometer for Tennessee before they enter conference play.
Kansas, which boasts two legitimate stars in point guard Sherron Collins and big man Cole Aldrich, will test every part of the Vols' roster. Wayne Chism and Tyler Smith must neutralize Aldrich if the Vols are to have a chance to win, as the frontcourt is the strength of the 2009-10 Tennessee team.
But the real key to this matchup--and perhaps to the Vols' season as well--lies in the point guard battle. Bobby Maze had his highs and lows last year, and Tennessee needs to see more highs if they are going to succeed against high-level competition. And there is no better competition than Sherron Collins and the Kansas Jayhawks.