The Tennessee Volunteers (28-9, 11-5 SEC) continue to be a highly competitive team. Last year, after finishing third in the SEC East, they went to the conference tournament where they beat Louisiana State and Mississippi before losing to Kentucky 74-45. They did better in the NCAA Tournament, beating San Diego 59-49 and Ohio 83-68. Then they met Ohio State in the Sweet 16 and managed a 76-73 victory in that hard-fought contest. It all came to an end in the Elite Eight, when they lost by one-point to Michigan State 70-69. It was quite a ride.
Tennessee comes to the court this year looking like they are once again a top 25 team but also a bit lighter on experience and honed skills. Three major contributors are gone—forward Wayne Chism (12.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 1.1 spg), guard Bobby Maze (9.4 ppg, 3.1 apg) and guard J.P. Prince (9.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.5 spg). Despite these big loses, head coach Bruce Pearl believes that his team can once again vie to the NCAA title.
One huge help amongst all those loses is the recruitment of forward Tobias Harris. The 6-8, 220-pound Harris, a McDonald’s All-American and the fifth-ranked recruit in the nation, has the potential to ensure that the Vols are a top 10 team. Harris, who is also the top rated power forward in his class, is a well-rounded player who has a scoring range that simply stretches out defenses, a physical game that can crush the boards and a quick touch that can dish off accurate passes.
With the departure of Chism, senior center Brian Williams (6-10, 278 lbs., SR, #33, 5.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 0.7 apg, 19.1 mpg, .504 FG, .000 3PT, .553 FT) will be required to bring more game. Last season at the Big Dance, Williams asserted himself physically, proving that he could mix it up inside. He’s got good hands and is a big defensive force. It took him some time to work his way into the starting rotation but eventually he proved to be the ultimate board pounder and rebbie man.
At small forward, Cameron Tatum (6-6, 197 lbs., JR, #23, 7.4 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.1 apg, 16.9 mpg, .481 FG, .389 3PT, .679 FT) will need to be much more consistent. He was in and out of the dog-house with coach Pearl last season. As a junior, he’s expected to show a certain amount of maturity and focus. Although he can play the guard spot, and he may, he’ll also see some time in front. Tatum can take the ball hard to the basket or pop out and hit from beyond the arc. Both shots are important weapons in the Vols’ attack.
The vocal leader on the court is point guard Melvin Goins (5-11, 195 lbs., SR, #2, 5.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.8 apg, 16.0 mpg, .387 FG, .327 3PT, .667 FT). He proved to be very impressive in last year’s NCAA Tournament and with the departure of Prince it will be up to him to make things happen. Built like a low-to-the-ground running back, Goins brings deft quickness and fine defensive skills to the court. He is the definitive on-court leader.
At the shooting spot, Scotty Hopson (6-7, 205 lbs., JR, #32, 12.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.2 apg, 27.7 mpg, .445 FG, .333 3PT, .588 FT) has all the hallmarks of a dominant player. He’s got hustle, the ability to drive to the basket and finish and explosive point making potential. Now that he’s an elder presence in the backcourt, he’ll be able to turn up the energy without deferring to another vet. During the summer, Hopson was busy improving his game, as he worked on his ball handling skills, played with the U.S. Select team and worked at two different camps run by LeBron James and Paul Pierce.
Coming off the bench and joining the frontcourt will be John Fields. Fields is new to the team but he is not a freshman; he’s a senior transfer from UNC-Wilmington. Fields is a 6-9, 230-pound shot blocker who set a school record at Wilmington last season by swiping away 59 balls. Senior Steven Pearl (6-5, 232 lbs., SR, #22, 1.5 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 0.6 apg, 10.9 mpg, .476 FG, .000 3PT, .263 FT), the coach’s son, will come in to offer defense.
There’s certainly depth in the backcourt. Backups at shooting guard include Skylar McBee (6-3, 190 lbs., SR, #13, 3.4 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 0.5 apg, 13.1 mpg, .323 FG, .313 3PT, .889 FT) and Josh Bone (6-3, 195 lbs., SR, #24, 1.7 ppg, 1.0 rpg, 0.3 apg, 9.7 mpg, .300 FG, .316 3PT, .667 FT) McBee is the better shot and is downright deadly from the charity stripe. Bone brings better “D” to the court. At the point, freshman Trae Golden offers both an accurate three and the ability and toughness to drive to the basket. He should be used for 10 or more minutes a game.
Within the conference, the team was overall average when it came to offense. They averaged 73.5 PPG (6th SEC) and had an offensive efficiency mark of 108.9 (64th nationally). On threes, they hit 32.0% (256th) and from the free throw line, they were good 67.1% (227th). Both of these averages need to improve. A high percentage of their points, 56.8%, came from shooting twos; the Vols were fairly accurate in that area, hitting 51.8% (35th).
Tennessee was especially tough on defense, earning an efficiency mark of 88.5, which placed them 11th in the country. They allowed an average of 65.2 PPG. They were 33rd in turnover percentage, 35th in effective field goal percentage, 82nd in block percentage and 68th in steal rate. Teams hit just 45.7% (82nd) of their twos and 29.7% (9th) of their threes. That three-point percentage indicates that opponents were forced to take poor and tough to hit shots from downtown.
Head coach Bruce Pearl (443-130 in 18 years, 126-46 in five years at Tennessee) has done a fine job running the Vol program. At this point, he doesn’t have a contract. That’s because Pearl, who is still coaching at the school, had his contract terminated by the administration as troubling revelations regarding recruitment practices began to surface.
Initially, it was revealed that he hosted a barbecue at his home for recruits. That might have been fine, but then it was disclosed that he told recruits to keep it quiet. But what really got Pearl into hot water was his lying to NCAA officials. Pearl is working without a contract and the NCAA investigation is ongoing. It’s hard to say how long the popular coach will be able to withstand the pressures and distractions that accompany an investigation. The result could very well be the removal of Pearl completely.
First of all, this is a very talented and dynamic Tennessee team. They certainly have the ability to compete within the SEC and to go deep into the NCAA Tournament. But the Pearl investigation is a no-win situation. If he stays, there will be innumerable distractions, especially if more revelations occur. If he goes, the Tennessee program will be in upheaval. Either way, the head coach may have gravely put his team’s chances of performing their best at risk. The Vols are ranked 14th in the country.
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