It’s Almost Basketball Time in Tennessee

The View From the Hill | Gate 21

Finally!

Well, for some it's been basketball season since about mid-September. But after a busy last spring - Ramar Smith/Duke Crews, the Hopson commitment and the Maze coup - and preseason - taking Negedu off Arizona's hands, D-West's unfortunate issues, and bum shoulders and bum academics - your defending SEC champs open up the 2008-08 season in the beautiful Thompson-Boling Arena tonight - an off football Saturday (thankfully) at that - against Chattanooga.

Because my creativity is pretty limited and honestly I'm still not fully into basketball mode, I'm going to take a shortcut with my hoops preview - a list. But unlike this list, it's going to be a nice one, and twice as long. Yes, that's 10 things and players I'm looking forward to/expecting from the always entertaining bunch of Bruce Pearl...

1. Back-to-back?

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="204" caption="This Tyler's team"][/caption]

Flashback to March 5th of last year. The Vols, trailing early to red-hot Florida in Gainesville while Mississippi State leads Vandy in Nashville, look poised to go from #1 in the country to a tie for the SEC title in just a week. Now I don't know about anybody else, but I don't like to share. Sharing - and tying for that matter - is stupid. I wanted the SEC all to Tennessee. I wanted a t-shirt (and a 1-seed). Who cares if the SEC was "down"? An SEC title is an SEC title.

Well then this and this happened. Tennessee got that title, its first in 41 years. Now, heading into this season, the Vols on paper are the favorites to repeat. Florida will likely provide the biggest challenge, but the Gates are young inside. Kentucky lost to VMI - yes, VMI - last night, and have to deal without Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley. They do Patrick Patterson, but it didn't help last night...

Vanderbilt lost their team Shan Foster, but Aussie-softee A.J. Ogilvy is back. South Carolina has a new coach (Darrin Horn) and Devan Downey, but that's a big turnaround. Georgia is not good at basketball (SEC Tournament = fluke). Even Buzz owned UGA. The West? I have no clue, so don't ask.

So while going back-to-back isn't gonna be easy, it could/should very well happen.

2. Being Sweet is nice and all, but Elite is, well, it's better...

In Bruce Pearl's first year, it was any sign of not being mediocre. In his second year, it was advancing past the second round (yes, I include Mike Conley and Greg Oden in the same light as Matt Mauck and Steven Hill). Last year, it was winning the SEC. Going along the natural progression, shouldn't this be the hump-overcoming year to the Elite Eight?

The common thought is that this year's group should be the opposite of last year's team that faded at the end. This year's team may struggle at first with the many new parts, but come tournament time, they could be real good. Now obviously there's a whole season and who knows what the matchups will be (hopefully nicer than last year), but this is the next step for the Tennessee program: going further in March, when it really counts.

3. Tyler Smith

It's going to be a ton of fun watching this guy play basketball this year. He is a special player, and with all due respect to the rest of this group, this team is Tyler's team. The offense is going to center around him, and when it comes down to it, he's going to be the go-to guy. He showed he's capable of coming through in the clutch (Ole Miss and Memphis, anyone?).

SEC Player of the Year? Likely. NBA Lottery Pick next June? If he gets an outside shot, without a doubt yes. To me he's next in line in establishing the Tennessee program as nationally relevant. The one we'll remember 20 years from now in the same line as C.J. Watson (who deserves WAY more appreciation than he gets), Dane Bradshaw, Chris Lofton (who's by himself), and JaJuan Smith.

4. Scotty, Cam, Woolridge, and Negedu...

Oh, the new guys. Talk about length. Talk about athleticism. A 6-6 or 6-8 guy at the two? Having seen Hopson play in the summer league, he just makes it look so easy. Yes, sometimes it looks as if he doesn't care. I'm not worried about him not turning it up when has to. Tatum may be the team's best three--point shooter (more on that later). Woolridge could start tomorrow night and has had quite the buzz around himself since summer. What will Negedu - who to me is essentially replacing Duke Crews - bring to the table?

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="191" caption="B-Maze might be the newcomer that determines the fate for Tennessee"][/caption]

How are all these new pieces going to mesh? Will the chemistry seen from the last two years still be here this year? It may take some time, but if it does, the talent is scary good. Obviously youth and inexperience gets brought up as well. To that I say these names: Carmelo Anthony. Derrick Rose. Kevin Love. Conley. Oden. This ain't football, people. You can win with freshman in hoops. It may get bumpy at first, but if the struggles are there by conference play, only then would I start worrying.

5. Big Money Maze

Now I think Bruce Pearl is an excellent coach. However, yes Rick Pitino did pretty much own him last March in Charlotte. Yes tinkering with Ramar Smith and the PG position for the NCAA Tournament probably wasn't his best moment, and I wouldn't be shocked if Bruce even told you that himself.

But I think Maze may be the missing link. The guy was the most impressive Vol in the summer league, with his ability to do many things at the offensive end and his overall intensity. Obviously with the horribly (and questionably) timed Daniel West eligibility issues, more of a burden falls on Maze's (and J.P. Prince's...and Josh Tabb's) shoulders. Can he handle it? Time will tell, but like with the rest of the new guys, Maze seems talented enough to make it happen.

I mean, he's like a clone of Allen Iverson - corn rows, headband, height - and he puts on for Tennessee...how bad can he be??

6. Big Wayne

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="195" caption="Wayne...you gotta love him..."][/caption]

I love watching Tyler Smith play. I'm probably gonna love some of the new guys' games too. But my favorite current Vol has to be Wayne Chism. For a couple reasons, First, he wears his headband differently from every other player, so he's easily spotted. Second, he and his three-point shots are adventurous. You always are thinking, "Oh s***, not Wayne!"...and he banks it in. Who doesn't love centers who can bomb? And finally, the dude's always smiling. Always. You gotta love him...

7. Who's Bert gonna yell "Money!" for now??

I have three major questions for this team. First, and this was a late-developing concern, is the point guard situation. Maze now has a bigger burden on his shoulders, and behind him it's either J.P. Prince, who most fans are probably very skeptical of after last year's debacle, or Josh Tabb. From seeing Daniel West in the summer league, I thought he was going to be a very solid backup. Prince says he's ready, not only healthy, but ready to play point guard. The Pistons are using Tayshaun as a point forward, so maybe J.P. can get some tips. I'm not saying he's not capable, I'll just believe it when I see it.

Secondly, losing Lofton and JaJuan means you lose almost all of the outside game. Who's gonna hit those dagger threes this year? Who will come up with the key outside shot in a key moment? Will the new three-point line have any effect on Bruce Pearl's three-happy offense? If Tennessee can't hit threes, team are undoubtedly going to pack it in and clog up the lane for Tyler and Chism. Thirdly, how will this team come together? Can the chemistry from the past seasons carry over with all these new faces? The talent's certainly there...

8. Now that's a schedule...

Bruce Pearl loves schedules like this. In addition to the SEC, everyone of course knows about the trip to Kansas, the visits from Memphis State and Gonzaga, and the game in Nashville with Big East foe Marquette.

How about we take a little deeper look? There's the Old Spice Classic in Orlando Thanksgiving weekend. The Vols' opening opponent, the Siena Saints, hammered the crap out of Vandy in the NCAA Tournament last year. Also there: Wichita State (revenge?), Georgetown, Michigan State (who's a top 10 team?), Oklahoma State, and Gonzaga (again possibly).

Even the "cupcake" teams aren't walkovers. Chattanooga hung with Tennessee last year. UT-Martin has Lester Hudson, who nearly went in the NBA Draft last year. MTSU is picked near the top of the Sun Belt (they lost in the conference tourney title game last March). There's a tricky little trip to Temple, an NCAA Tournament team from last year. Finally, there's Belmont. Ask Dook about the Bruins.

9. "The Streak"

Fact: in my two years of college, I have never had to leave TBA with the sick feeling of losing. Yes, I'm undefeated at home over two years. Tennessee's home winning streak is up to 32 games now, and I think it would be cool to keep that going.

Just four years ago, TBA was just a big, empty arena. Now, it's one of the best arenas in college basketball, and one of the toughest places to play in the SEC and the nation. Thank you, Bruce.

10. January 24, 2009

Look, most Tennessee fans don't really care about little ol' Memphis State down in the southwest corner of the state. It's a little different for those of us who either live there and grew up there. Seeing Tennessee win the last two games against Tiger High in person were two of the funnest times of my college life. Watching them choke away a national title was pretty good too...

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="WWWHHHHHHAAAAHHHHHH"][/caption]

The Vols go for three-in-a-row January 24 in Knoxville. Honestly, this is the game I probably want to win the most this year. I could go into my reasons my hating the Tigers basketball program, but I'll save that til this game in January. I'm not one of guaranteeing things, but it's probably going to better than my Alabama hate post from a few weeks ago.

Oh I can't wait to make John Calipari cry his way back home...yet again.

GO VOLS BASKETBALL!!


Images Courtesy of: Mark Humphrey / AP (Daylife)Saul Young / GVX • Joe Murphy / Getty Images (Daylife)Alan Spearman / AP (Daylife)

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