Experience. Depth. Bruce Pearl.
All are pieces to the Big Orange Basketball puzzle. The question is, will they all come together to form a championship picture?
Bruce Pearl leads his boys into battle for another season.
This, however, is no ordinary season.
This team is more talented, experienced, and deeper than any team that's been assembled by the energetic coach.
Puzzle Piece No. 1 - Experience
Returning seniors, Tyler Smith, J.P. Prince, and Wayne Chism have guided the Vols to quite a few wins during their time at Knoxville.
When Tyler Smith decided to come back for his senior season the expectations for a special year began to percolate.
His ability to do whatever needs to be done cannot be understated. Smith has a tremendous basketball IQ and if you are Pearl or one of the many fans, you want the ball in Tyler Smith's hands most of the time.
J.P. Prince, himself, has been a puzzle for much of his time at Tennessee. Prince has shown the ability to run the point, play the 2 and 3 positions, and be a game changer. He just hasn't done any of the three consistently.
Of course, injuries have been a factor for him, but a stellar, consistent senior campaign would be just what the doctor ordered.
Wayne Chism is probably one of the more versatile big men in the conference. At 6'9", he plays the post the majority of the time. His versatility comes from the fact that whether at Center, Power Forward, or on the perimeter, the guy can shoot. Not only can he shoot, but he's a terrific rebounder and defender in the paint.
Puzzle Piece No. 2 - Depth
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Bruce Pearl's transition-minded coaching is depth. Depth is a key at any program, for any sport, regardless of it's style of play. But at Tennessee it's more than a key, it's a requirement.
At the point, returning senior Bobby Maze hopes to build on last year's hard fought season. He didn't quite live up to the big expectations, but after a year under his belt the senior is ready to take on a new season.
Sharing time at the point with Maze will be Melvin Goins. Goins is a JuCo transfer from San Diego, California. Two season's ago Goins earned MAC all-freshman team honors at Ball State.
Pearl hopes to utilize Goins' small frame in transition as well as at the point. He will challenge Maze for playing time much of the year and could end up being a starter soon.
Scotty Hopson was a McDonalds All-American coming into Knoxville last season. He found the transition to the college game a little more steep than he thought, however.
Hopson's youth played a role in his inconsistency last year, but still, he showed glimpses despite a rough start. Hopson has gained some muscle over the offseason and has reportedly worked on his game for months.
Hopson will start. He plays the 2 well, but can also be utilized at the 3.
If he plays to his potential he and the Vols will be much better for it—he could land the Vols in the Final Four before landing in the NBA next June.
Cameron Tatum is another hybrid two/three who will provide valuable minutes off the bench. He has a knack for the big shot and is a three-point threat.
Brian Williams is another valuable asset off the bench. The 6'10" post can always be counted to give Chism a breather. Williams is no slouch on the court either. His wide 267-lb frame is hard to defend and he always makes his presence known in the paint.
Renaldo Woolridge, even though he didn't make the first 10-rotation, will provide a breather as well. Woolridge has the ability to become a special player, but he'll certainly have to play better than he has in practice so far.
Steven Pearl, Coach Pearl's son, is a scrappy junior that plays pretty good defense and will contribute minutes off the bench.
Newcomers Kenny Hall and Skylar McBee are expected to contribute this season as well. Hall is a 6'8, 215-lb power forward whose frame is quite deceptive. The freshman from Stone Mountain, Ga will get playing time, but I wouldn't expect a breakout in his first season.
McBee is a preferred walk-on who chose Tennessee over scholarship offers at various mid-majors. The 6'3 guard could become an intergral part of this team with his ability to shoot from the perimeter. Keep an eye on this guy, he could make a lot of noise this season.
Emmanuel Negedu's absence will hurt. The small forward may never play basketball again after collapsing with cardiac arrest following a a short workout during the summer. His health is more important than any game though. He will definitely provide some inspiration this season.
Puzzle Piece No. 3 - Bruce Pearl
Coach Pearl came to Tennessee four full seasons ago. Two Sweet 16s, one outright SEC title, and three SEC East titles later the Vols are potentially on the verge of a big season.
Pearl has rebuilt this program into a perennial SEC contender. With him at the helm the Vols have vaulted to the forefront of SEC competition.
Pearl is not only a puzzle piece, but the crafter of the puzzle. He has built his game on transition basketball and utilizing pressure defense. He recruits players to fit into that mold.
Mission accomplished for 2009.
All coaches have to make adjustments. Adjustments are based on a variety of factors, not the least of which is personnel. With the personnel on this team fitting perfectly into Pearl's design, the sky is the limit for this team.
Pearl will definitely have his work cut out for him as the SEC is light-years better in '09-'10 than it was last season.
Kentucky went down the "hired-gun" route when it hired John Calipari. With Coach Cal came a highly touted recruiting class that instantly made the Wildcats a Final Four caliber team.
Vanderbilt and South Carolina are both better than last year and could easily make the tournament. Florida is ready to get back into the mix this year as well.
In the West, Mississippi State and Ole Miss could be in for very special seasons as well.
In the end, however, I believe Tennessee's overall depth, experience, and coaching will make it the team to beat in the SEC.
The puzzle is in place. It has taken four seasons to get there and they've had some success on the way, but '09-'10 is potentially the season where it finally comes together for Big Orange Hoops.