SEC Make or Break: Tennessee Volunteers

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 8th, 2011

The Make or Break series will tell us what we need to know about each SEC team by looking at the three most important non-conference games on each team’s schedule. Depending on the outcome, these three games could make OR break that team’s season because of the strengths it shows or weaknesses it could expose. The next team in the series is the Tennessee Volunteers.

The end of the Bruce Pearl era took with it seven seniors and two underclassmen (Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson) who declared early for the NBA draft. After all the dust settled, new Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin is left with one starter from last year and one heck of a rebuilding project ahead of him. Martin rebuilt Missouri State University in his first head coaching position, and he will need time to rebuild things in Knoxville. Things will not come easily for the Vols as they play one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country. Tennessee plays Duke in the Maui Invitational Tournament (and additional games against a loaded field), at Memphis, Pittsburgh in the Big East/SEC Challenge, the defending national champion Connecticut Huskies and that’s not even mentioning games at Oakland and at College of Charleston, both of whom are teams that beat UT last year. It will be a long road for Martin and the Vols, but playing competitively in this murderer’s row of top shelf teams will be a good start.

Martin isn't the only new face in Knoxville...

The three key non-conference games that will make or break the Volunteers schedule this season:

  • November 22 – vs. Michigan (Maui Invitational Tournament): If Tennessee loses to Duke in the first round of the Maui Invitational (I know it’s a crazy thought, but stay with me) and Michigan loses to Memphis (slightly less crazy), then Tennessee and Michigan will square off in the loser’s bracket. The sting from the 75-45 loss from last year’s NCAA Tournament Round of 64 is still fresh on the minds of the Volunteers who still happen to be in Knoxville. Tennessee lost by 30 with Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson. Imagine what could happen without those guys. For the new look Volunteers, this could be a game of redemption. I’m not even saying the Volunteers need to win this one, but to stay mentally strong moving forward, UT just needs to compete better than a 30-point blowout to show that they’ve erased the demons of the Bruce Pearl era and are ready to begin anew.
  • November 28 – @ Oakland: Oakland beat Tennessee 89-82 last year in Thompson-Boling Arena. Sure, the Golden Grizzlies lost 2nd round NBA draft pick and the Summit League’s best player in Keith Benson, but there is still plenty of talent left for Oakland. They return perhaps this season’s best Summit League player in 5’11” guard Reggie Hamilton. Hamilton averaged 17.6 points and 5.3 assists per game last year for the Grizzlies. Add in sophomore guard Travis Bader who shot over 44 percent from beyond the arc, and the Volunteers may not be able to match the offensive firepower on the perimeter that Oakland brings, especially in their own building. Can 6’5″ guard Jordan McRae get his offensive game going in Tennessee’s first true road game or will the Vols fall short away from Knoxville?
  • January 4 – @ Memphis: A trademark of Martin’s Missouri State teams over the last three years was the effectiveness with which they took care of the basketball. Under Martin, the Bears consistently ranked at or near the top of the conference and NCAA in points per possession and assist to turnover ratio. His teams are typically careful with the ball, and that means opposing teams cannot make too many mistakes. Turn the ball over, and Martin’s team won’t give it back, that is, until they’ve scored on the other end. Memphis is a team that struggled with ball security last year averaging 15.3 turnovers per game, good enough for 290th in the NCAA. This could be a game where Tennessee’s best strength could take advantage of Memphis’ weakness. With that said, Martin needs his players to implement his system and continue this trend. This game could be a good test against their in-state rival of how quickly the Vols are coming along in the first year under Martin’s system.  
Brian Joyce (333 Posts)

Brian Joyce is an advanced metrics enthusiast, college hoops junkie, and writer for the SEC basketball microsite for Rush the Court.

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