Christmas will afford the Musketeers a week off - or at least a week before games - before they travel to face the second most successful basketball program on the campus of the University of Tennessee. Unlike virtually every other NCAA school except maybe the University of Connecticut, Tennessee's male basketball program by and large lives in the shadow of the successful women's program established by the since departed Pat Summitt. The outsized personality of Bruce Pearl brought the men's team onto the level with their counterparts, but he ran afoul of the NCAA and was relieved of his responsibilities as head coach.
In their first year after Pearl, the Volunteers posted a 19-15 record and generally searched to find consistency under new coach Cuonzo Martin. The ensuing NIT bid, while not nothing, probably didn't go very far towards satiating the Tennessee faithful's desire for postseason basketball. Now in his second year at the helm, Martin has his team set to take the next step in the return to national relevance.
When: 6pm on Saturday, 12/29
Where: Knoxville, TN
Martin had a successful run as the head man for Missouri State before making the move to Tennessee. His calling card has been a slow-paced offense; the 65.6 possession per game Tennessee posted last year were his fastest as a head coach despite being 194th in the nation. His teams have been consistently average on the offensive glass and have shot from deep slightly more frequently than the average team.
While last year's team was offensively nondescript, their defense was borderline sensational. Despite being dismal at forcing turnovers (279th in the country), they held teams to 93 points per 100 possessions. They smothered the arc, allowing just 28% of opponents' attempts to come from deep. They also choked the inside (44.2% opponents' 2P%) thanks to blocking more than 10% of opponents' two-point shots. Finally, the Volunteers were also in the top 100 in defending the glass, allowing offensive boards on barely 30% of opponents' misses.
Tennessee only lost two players who got meaningful minutes for last year's team, and neither was exactly a pivotal part of their game plan. Cameron Tatum was the fifth-leading scorer, posting 8.1/4.1/2.6 but getting there with a horrifyingly inefficient .352/.343/.759 shooting line. Tatum did hit 47 threes on the year but was only the fourth best shooter on the roster. Fellow forward Renaldo Woolridge was good for 4.3/3.3/0.3 on .406/.372/.545 shooting. Beyond that, the Vols bring back everyone who played more than 200 minutes on the season.
Rising junior guard Trae Golden was UT's most productive player last year, leading the team in scoring and assists on his way to a 13.6/3.0/4.5 game line on .439/.388/.828 shooting. Golden has range (50 three-point baskets made last year) and is also difficult to contain at and around the rim. Joining him in returning is 6'7", 260-pound rising senior Jeronne Maymon. Maymon put up 12.7/8.1/1.2 on .558/.000/.658 shooting and rebounded at elite rates on both ends of the floor. He also drew six fouls per 40 minutes played, which could become a factor against Xavier's willowy, foul-prone front line.
Rising sophomore Jarnell Stokes has an interesting story. The 6'8", 270-pound forward was a five-star recruit who graduated high school early last year, enrolled at UT on his 18th birthday, and saw his first NCAA action in a three-point loss to UK. Stokes put up 9 and 5 in that game and finished the season averaging 9.6/7.4/0.7 on .534/.000/.569 shooting. Volunteer fans are no doubt excited about the quarter ton of talented forwards that will suit up for the team this season.
Reserve G Jordan McRae is a gunner off the bench, grabbing 8.6 points per game while taking 26% of the team's shots when he is on the floor. Rising senior guard Skylar McBee is less shameless but perhaps more dangerous; he banged home 63 three-pointers while shooting 39.1% from deep last season. Finally, 6'9" forward Kenny Hall averaged 6.2/4.5/0.4 in 20 minutes per game last year and will figure to add frontcourt depth again this season for Tennessee.
Guard Armani Moore stands 6'4" and has good athleticism for his size. His game is predicated on dribble penetration, and he can get all the way to the rim or pull up for a mid-range jumper. His most obvious offensive weakness is his need to be able to consistently hit from deep. Six-foot-seven wing Derek Reese is aggressive in looking for his shot - especially from the mid range - but too passive in other facets of the game. He needs to commit to the attack on offense and put more effort in on the glass at both ends. Also, adding weight to his 195-pound frame should help him. UT also signed 6'6" small forward D'Montre Edwards as a JuCo transfer. He put up 14.1/7.5/1.4 last season while hitting 36% of his three-point attempts.
Tennessee - at least on paper - outmans Xavier in a couple of key areas. They are led by an experienced and aggressive point guard who can get his own shot or create for others. They have two massive big men inside that have Xavier's heaviest forwards (Philmore and possibly Cantino) outweighed by at least 30 pounds. Bear in mind, those who would double the post, that the Vols return three players who hit 39 or more threes last season. For Xavier to win this game, they will have to crack a very tough defensive team while putting up a beastly effort on the other end. Tennessee, on the other hand, could be looking at a very good season if all their pieces come together.