20 Questions: Can a Third SEC Team Emerge as a National Player?Posted by Bennet Hayes on October 17th, 2013
Throughout the preseason, RTC national columnists will answer the 20 most compelling questions heading into the 2013-14 season. Previous columns in this year’s series are located here.
Basketball in the Southeastern Conference has long been dominated by Kentucky and Florida. Since 1997, those two schools have combined for four times as many National Championships as the rest of the conference has Final Four appearances. LSU’s 2006 national semifinal appearance was a proud moment for the Tiger program, but outside of that showing and a more recent flourish from Tennessee (six straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2006-11), it’s hard to find too many SEC teams not named Kentucky or Florida that have made waves nationally. The forecast for 2013-14 doesn’t look a whole lot different than usual, with the Gators and Wildcats climbing into most experts’ preseason Top 25s, the two powers again finding separation from their conference mates. But is there another team in the league capable of surprising the experts and making a push into the national consciousness? The track record of the rest of the conference makes it difficult to be overly optimistic about the prospects of any team making that leap, but a talented Tennessee team with some valuable newfound stability could prove capable of pulling up a third seat at a dinner table that has long sat only two.
Given the recent success of the Bruce Pearl era (at least when he wasn’t doubling as a grill-master) and the expansive women’s basketball tradition in Knoxville, Tennessee would certainly seem like the most natural program to be poised for a step up in national notoriety. Cuonzo Martin’s first two seasons at the helm in Knoxville exhibited some of that promise, but the Vols would up just short of the NCAA Tournament in each campaign. This season, the talent is in place to not only make the field of 68, but also do some damage upon arrival.
The Volunteers’ nucleus of Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon may all be upperclassmen, but the trio has only shared the court together for roughly half a season. Maymon was lost for all of last season with a knee injury, and Stokes began his freshman season late in January 2012, so having all three healthy and available will be a relatively new treat for Martin. It’s also worth noting that their lone spell of concurrent availability coincided with a late season SEC surge two years ago, albeit with a very different supporting cast. A big part of that group was point guard Trae Golden, who decided to use his final year of eligibility this season elsewhere (Georgia Tech). As erratic and uneven as Golden’s performances tended to be from game to game, adequately replacing their three-year starter at the point will not be easy. The challenge became far more manageable in late May when Memphis transfer Antonio Barton announced he would be joining the Vols. Barton is eligible immediately after graduating in the spring, and his reliable outside shooting will be a welcome change from Golden, who shot just 29% (while still attempting 3.1 treys a game) from three-point range a year ago. Barton will need to ease some concerns that he isn’t a true point guard, but don’t be shocked if the Golden for Barton exchange actually works out as a net positive for Tennessee.
Rounding out the starting lineup will likely be heralded freshman Robert Hubbs, a top-25 recruit according to RSCI’s final rankings for the class of 2013. Veteran Josh Richardson started every game a season ago and offers a nice insurance policy if Hubbs isn’t as ready as expected, but Martin should be happy to have the freshman in the lineup, as he adds a dynamic element to pair with the bruising inside duo of Stokes and Maymon. Richardson will be a nice wing option off the bench, but the frontcourt depth behind Stokes and Maymon is still unproven. Given Maymon’s injury history and Stokes’ foul trouble issues a season ago, finding adequate minutes from others at the post positions will be a primary focus for Martin as he moves into the season.
While Martin appears to have the Tennessee program trending in an upward trajectory, don’t underestimate the importance of the Vols cashing in on the growth this season. Maymon, McRae and Barton will all be gone next year, and after a brief flirtation with the draft this past spring, Stokes could very well be too. The time is now in Knoxville. Upending both Kentucky and Florida for the league title is a lot to ask, but these Vols are good enough to at least hang around that race into late February and early March. Barton’s comfort level at the point will be key to Tennessee success, but the freshman Hubbs may provide the most hope for a true Volunteer breakout season. The frontcourt is loaded with proven production; if Hubbs can step in and score in (relative) bunches from the get-go, a tough, veteran team would get that much scarier on the offensive end. It may be a lot to ask for, but as we have seen for the better part of the last two decades, breaking into that upper echelon of the SEC is not an easy thing to do.