Arguably the most important figure in America today is Bruce Pearl.
OK, perhaps not arguably, but for a weary group of Vol fans, Bruce Pearl is giving off quite the glow around Knoxville these days.
The decline of the football team has left the surviving true Vol fans feeling like a band of brothers (minus Ron Livingston and Chandler from Friends thus far, though the verdict is still out on them).
Last season, the Vols faced the tough task of meeting expectations; a task most fans gladly embrace. I think that the consensus would be that this was also a challenge that they met very well.
The reason last season's team didn’t ultimately have more success was that they peaked too early in the season. They peaked when they won the Memphis game in what turned into an epic match-up resulting in the Vols first ever No. 1 ranking.
So what are the expectations coming into this season?
The expectations for the Vols are still definitely high (picked to win the SEC), but maybe a little bit lower than last season due to the loss of senior guards Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith.
Chris Lofton finished his career as the SEC’s all-time three point shooter, as well as third all-time nationally. JaJuan Smith actually wasn’t too far behind him either finishing third all-time in Tennessee’s record books.
It will be a tough task for Bruce Pearl to replace the 30 points per game that those two averaged.
The Vols also lost forward Duke Crews who transferred to Bowie State in Maryland and Ramar Smith who transferred to Oklahoma City University.
Those are tough shoes to fill for the SEVEN newcomers to the Vols roster. Last season Tennessee finished sixth nationally in points per game at 82. Can these new guys get the job done? Most signs thus far have indicated that they can.
Clearly the three-point shooting will be less of strength. However, this year’s squad is longer, deeper, and more athletic than any of Pearl’s previous three teams.
As Pearl pointed out, “the talent is there, but there is absolutely nothing you can do to duplicate experience.”
But before you start questioning the legitimacy of this team step back and look at what Bruce Pearl has done during his time at Tennessee.
In his three years, he has taken a mediocre at best Tennessee team past Florida in the Eastern Division of the SEC the year they won the National Championship. He's won a SEC regular-season title and 77 games.
He's also increased home attendance by more than 8,000 fans per game. Not to mention that he has gotten 24,535 seat Thompson-Boling Arena renovated and the very nice new Pratt Pavilion practice facility built.
If anyone can be trusted with shaping this team to meet the high expectations, Bruce Pearl can. Pearl has been quoted saying that he thinks, “the high end of this team could be as high as it was last year.”
Bold words Bruce.
To complicate things, the Vols are looking at the toughest schedule in the country for the second year in a row.
The Vols open the season with UT-Chattanooga, UT-Martin, MTSU, and Siena. Not huge names, but all are picked to win their conference. These are all the types of teams that are often bracket busters come March.
If the Vols get past Siena in the Old Spice Classic, they face the winner of the Georgetown vs. Wichita State game. If they can advance past the second round too, they will face either Maryland, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, or Gonzaga.
Next they face UNC-Asheville and Temple who is always a tough team to face.
After those two the Vols travel to Nashville to play Marquette in the SEC/Big East Challenge.
Next up is Belmont who almost ousted Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season. They follow that up with on the road at defending National Champions Kansas, and then back home against Gonzaga.
And then conference play starts…
So in addition to playing Florida, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt twice each, Tennessee also hosts Memphis this year. If you’ll remember, Memphis also played in the National Championship this past season.
Look for the Vols to win most of their games early on, but not necessarily impressively. I think that expectations are going to be a little too high going into the season for most fans who have just heard about all the new talent, but don't really have reasonable expectations for such a young team.
And as I alluded to in opening the article, the abysmal football team is going to do nothing but put more pressure on the basketball team to succeed.
Ultimately I think that the Vols will repeat as SEC Champions and probably thrive in Atlanta as well in the SEC Tournament. I'm not ready to put the Vols past the Sweet 16 yet though. I think it's too early to make such a judgment call because of all the factors involved in such a prediction.
In the next few days I’ll post an article breaking down the Vols new roster and delve further into what to look for from each player individually.