SEC Transition Basketball: Tennessee Volunteers

Posted by Brian Joyce on August 13th, 2012

It’s hot out there, and to many of us, college basketball is the last thing on our minds. But here at the SEC Microsite, we’re going to be rolling out mid-summer resets of each of the (now) 14 basketball programs in our league. We’re calling it Transition Basketball, and you can expect we’ll cover three or four teams a week until we’re done. By that time, we’ll actually start to be turning the slight corner into the fall, and from there it’s a smooth slope down to Midnight Madness in mid-October. Today’s update: Tennessee. 

State of the Program

Year one under new head coach Cuonzo Martin was, for all intents and purposes, a success. Most of the talent in Knoxville walked out the door when the Bruce Pearl circus left town, leaving the Vols with a tough rebuilding job. But Martin had UT competing night in and night out with some of the best teams in the country. The Vols lost to Duke, Pittsburgh, College of Charleston, and twice to Memphis just to name a few of the early-season defeats.  Tennessee’s difficult non-conference schedule may have piled up several losses, but it also prepared the Vols for life in the SEC. And it paid off. Martin’s team went a surprising 10-6 in conference play, including winning eight of its final nine games in the regular season.

Cuonzo Martin is building a winner in Knoxville, and doing so quickly. (Photo via AP Photo/The News Sentinel, Adam Brimer)

Year one  of the Martin Era was impressive, but the pieces are in place for year two to be even better. The Vols built a strong frontline in Jeronne Maymon, Jarnell Stokes, and Kenny Hall, and all three have returned to Knoxville for another season. Point guard Trae Golden is back as well. The list of returning players goes on and on, giving the Vols the advantage of having the entire offseason to gain a better understanding of Martin’s system. But any conversation about Tennessee’s rebuilding efforts wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the biggest returner of all. The most important piece to the Vols’ hoops success is Cuonzo Martin, and that is saying a lot considering the resounding “who?” heard around the state of Tennessee in March 2011 when Martin was hired to take over the reins of a reeling UT basketball program.

Recruiting Reset

Cuonzo Martin’s second recruiting class isn’t at the top of the rankings, but Martin is pleased with his three new recruits. “I want guys who have a lot of tools on the floor,” Martin said. “It’s a really good class. They are all good all-around players, and we like to have complete basketball players.” Derek Reese, a three-star 6’8″ forward from Orlando, Florida, and D’Montre Edwards, a 6’7″ junior college transfer from Brevard Community College can both step out and knock down open shots. Finally, Armani Moore is a 6’5″ guard out of Marietta, Georgia, who played all five positions for his high school. Martin is looking for aggressive players to round out his roster. “Look at the team that won the national championship (Kentucky),” Martin said. “How many jump shooters did they have? They had a couple guys who made threes, but they had several guys who could get the rim. They got to the free-throw line over 300 times more than their opponents. We want to be like that. If you have multiple guys who can penetrate and make plays, get to the free-throw line, you can score the ball like we want to do.”

Breakout Player

It’s almost too easy to declare a breakout player when you look up and down the roster and see Jarnell Stokes‘ name staring you in the face. He played in just 17 games last season, averaging 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, but we all knew we were watching a star in the making when he smoothly opened his college career with nine points and four rebounds against the eventual national champs. Or maybe you didn’t realize it until exactly one week later when he poured in 16 points and 12 rebounds against the 2011 champion Connecticut Huskies. Regardless, it was obvious that Stokes would be the leader of this Tennessee team if he stuck around long enough. He wisely decided to pass up the NBA Draft for the chance to improve his stock and Tennessee’s fortunes during his sophomore year.

Stokes will be the go-to guy in Knoxville next season because of his efficient all-around play. The forward was a solid rebounder and an effective 52.9 percent shooter from the field last year. He needs to improve his free throw shooting in order to truly become a dominant force in the SEC, but his work this summer with the U-18 USA team will likely pay dividends for his game and his leadership skills. “He’s too good when he gets set up inside — very difficult to handle,” Team USA coach Billy Donovan said. “There was no one guy down there who could match up to him physically. He just overwhelmed other teams’ frontcourts, even when he was up against guys who were taller with more length. He could remove them from plays with his strength.” He overwhelmed teams internationally, and will likely do the same in the SEC this season.

Three Questions With The Daily Beacon‘s Patrick Maccoon

Patrick Maccoon is a staff writer for The Daily Beacon, the student newspaper for the University of Tennessee. He is in Tennessee’s School of Journalism and as a high school senior was named the State’s Top Student Journalist by the Tennessee High School Press Association in Nashville. Yeah, that’s kind of a big deal. The moral of the story is that he knows his stuff. And we got the opportunity recently to ask him some questions about his Tennessee Volunteers. You can keep up with all his work here, but right after you check out his thoughts on the progress the Vols are making during the offseason.

Rush the Court: Jarnell Stokes showed incredible promise last season, and has had a solid offseason playing for the U-18 USA team. What’s the ceiling for Stokes? What kind of season can we expect from him?

Patrick Maccoon: Jarnell has been turning heads left and right on the court since he arrived at UT near the midpoint of last season. Not only did he show head coach Cuonzo Martin that he was mentally and physically prepared to play at the SEC level and play with the best of the best in the NCAA as a freshman but he also proved his reliability. Over this summer he played a major role in leading the U-18 USA Team to a gold medal in Brazil by finishing as the team’s second-leading scorer (14.0 PPG) and rebounder (5.6 RPG). With his talent and size I believe Stokes’ ceiling is sky high going into his sophomore season and he will be a force down low to reckon with all season in the SEC. He brings a spark to the team that was missing at the beginning of last season and we can expect him to easily surpass his season statistics from last season and help the Vols into the NCAA Tournament in March. Stokes is one of those type of high-caliber players that doesn’t come around all that often.

RTC: We know how good Stokes, Golden, and Maymon can be. Who could be the surprise player for this year’s team? Jordan McRae has played well in the Rocky Top league. Coach Martin indicated Kenny Hall has added a significant amount of muscle this offseason. Could one of those guys step into a major role? 

PM: I think Jordan McRae is possibly one of the more, if not the most, athletic players on this year’s Vols basketball team. While he was slotted into the starting lineup at the beginning of last season he found himself coming off the bench the rest of the way after the Vols’ 69-51 loss to the Memphis Tigers on January 4. While his struggles were apparent last season the team realizes his scoring ability. This summer in the Rocky Top League the junior forward scored a league-record 64 points that earned him his second scoring title in as many years. There’s no doubt that the former four-star prospect from Midway, Georgia, has his flashes of brilliance on the court but he will have to prove to his coaches this preseason that he is deserving of a starting spot that will most likely be a battle between he and sophomore Josh Richardson and possibly JUCO transfer D’Montre Edwards. On the other hand I think Kenny Hall is in store for a solid season and will provide a major shotblocking presence for the Vols down low this year. Coach Martin will be glad to have a 6’9″ big man coming of the bench when Maymon or Stokes are in foul trouble or need a break.

RTC: What’s the biggest adjustment that Coach Martin needs to make in year two? He had a gritty, determined team that willed itself to win despite often being the underdog, but Tennessee was still a 19-15 team. Specifically what do the Vols need to improve to make solid progress this season?

PM: Despite the Vols missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2005-06 season it appears that Martin has the program headed in the right direction after putting together a solid first year record of 19-15 and 10-6 record in conference play. All the pieces seem to be together for the Vols to make it to March Madness but some of the key things they will have to succeed in to get that far will be strong leadership from their five seniors and Martin placing a strong focus in ball security, which hurt the Vols in several games last season. If the team can play to their potential with limited setbacks there’s no reason why they can’t earn a Top 25 ranking throughout the season or earn themselves a favorable seeding in March Madness.

Twitter Style 2012-13 Outlook

The pieces are in place for a solid season including a return to the Top 25 and successful NCAA Tournament run. The puzzle isn’t complete, but the picture is starting to take shape.

Brian Joyce is a writer for the SEC microsite and regular contributor for Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about SEC basketball at bjoyce_hoops

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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