On the eve of opening night of Tennessee's regular season, Bruce Pearl and his team are still on a learning curve. Pearl brought a very talented roster into the off-season, but recently that look has changed dramatically.
Last season, the Vols ended their season with a tough loss to Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Though they'd have liked to have made it further, the Vols showed growth in key positions that would be returning for this season.
Recently, however, some of those components have been taken out of the equation. Senior guard Josh Tabb, a proven defensive stopper, left school voluntarily, and will not play this season.
The loss of Tabb looms large as Pearl was often quoted in recent months about his intentions on going back to his high pressure press that so many fans got used to seeing.
Perhaps more unfortunate, though, was the loss of Emmanuel Negedu to an unforeseen heart condition. Negedu collapsed at practice on Sept. 28, and needed a cardiac defibrillator installed on Oct. 6.
Negedu was a four star recruit, and though he didn't start a game as a freshman, grew his raw game into respectable, and dependable minutes for Pearl. Negedu's physical makeup seemed to have been a perfect fit for front-man to guard the inbounds pass on Pearl's press this season.
So, after losing two key guys to what was sure to be a concentrated effort, and emphasis on defense this season, the Vols have to adjust. Fear not, Bruce Pearl has proven repeatedly he can exceed expectations in the face of adversity, and with some inferior talent at certain positions.
While the off-season news has had it's share of bad, there's plenty of things to look forward to. The most obvious being the decision by senior forward Tyler Smith to return for his final season.
Smith averaged 17 points per game, along with close to six rebounds, and three assists last season, but didn't receive the draft grade he wanted to pull the trigger, and leave. Smith's return leaves the Vols Top-Seven scoring threats in tact for this season.
With Scotty Hopson's game continuing to grow as well, some of the pressure of being "the guy" will be taken off Smith this season. Hopson showed flashes last season, but at times seemed timid, and hesitant to take over the game when he seemingly had a chance.
By all accounts, Hopson has turned a corner. He has become much more aggressive to create his own shot, and the ability to force multiple defenders to him, creating open shots for teammates.
For the second straight season, Bruce Pearl is bringing in back-court help from the junior college ranks. Last season it was Bobby Maze, who turned in a decent season, but somewhat under the expectation of many.
This season Melvin Goins, formerly an all-MAC performer at Ball State, joins the Vols, and brings what Pearl calls "an added level of toughness and experience to our team". Goins is hyped as a very good on-the-ball defender, and has the ability to create off the dribble, something Maze struggled to do with any consistency last season.
Also figuring to play a prominent role is newcomer Kenny Hall. Hall was a four star prospect according to Rivals.com, and so far in the preseason, appears to be as ready to play as any Vol big man freshman in recent memory.
With the injury to Negedu, Hall stepping up his game would be a great surprise for Pearl, and will take some of that sting away.
Some key role players that are also returning, and the Vols are looking for some improvement from, are Renaldo Woolridge, Brian Williams, and Cam Tatum. Woolridge has been made a hybrid 3/4, Williams is still dropping weight, and Tatum is still trying to be consistent.
Smith brings the star power, Hopson brings the hype, but if you ask me the entire season will hinge on two players.
J.P. Prince has been a mystery since his arrival in Knoxville. Prince is a good athlete, has a very long frame, and a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
For some reason, however, Prince has been unable to consistently be what he flashes. If you see Prince on a "good" night, the kid appears to be a 15 point, seven rebound kind of guy. In reality, he's playing at nine and four.
Prince's long frame, and athletic ability could prove critical to the success of the re-installed press. His ability to block a large part of a passing lane easily, could trigger a lot of turnovers, and produce some very easy buckets.
Perhaps there is no bigger factor though, than Wayne Chism. The 6'9" senior really started coming on in conference play last season, and finished averaging close to 14 points and eight boards a game.
Most people agree Chism has the potential to do even more. Wayne spends a lot of time at the arc in the Flex offense Pearl utilizes, and a concentrated effort to keep him closer to the basket could produce elite level forward numbers.
The knock on Wayne is that one night, he'll take over a game, and the other he'll kind of disappear. This season, if Wayne Chism can be the 18 and 10 guy I believe he can be, the Vols will go very deep in the tournament.
Besides the guard play from Goins and Maze, the "X factor" for this season could be freshman Skylar McBee. McBee is a sharpshooting, preferred walk-on that Pearl convinced to come to Tennessee, and earn a scholarship, instead of taking a full ride somewhere else.
One thing the Vols lacked last season was someone who could step in the lineup, and consistently be a deep threat. After losing Chris Lofton, anything would be a step down, but the threat was non existent.
Tennessee should be effective against the man-to-man with good penetraters like Smith, Hopson, and Prince, but the zone killed the Vols last year. If McBee can come in the game, and knock down close to 40-45 percent from three, he could open this team up in a way it desperately lacked last season.
Despite question marks, it's amazing what Pearl has done with this program. In the face of losing what was going to be two key contributors, Vol fans can still reasonably expect a strong showing, which in the past wouldn't have been the case.
The Vols are returning a lot of talent, and a lot of guys who plan on winning. If Pearl is going to go deep, this may be the year. Smith, Prince, Chism, and Maze are all seniors, and with a breakout season, Hopson could bolt for the NBA.
It's not always been pretty, but look for Pearl to make serious noise on the college landscape again this season. Right now, this looks like a team I would expect a Sweet 16 appearance out of, at least.