Can Tennessee Emerge as a National Player This Season?Posted by Chris Johnson on November 6th, 2013
The top two finishers in the SEC this season are easy to project: Kentucky and Florida. The Wildcats, who welcome in arguably the greatest recruiting class of all-time – one built on the backs of six McDonald’s All-Americans and three players ranked No. 1 at their respective positions – are the odds-on favorite to win the league, while Florida, with its potent mix of veterans, freshmen and transfers, should pose a fierce challenge for first place. The SEC is more top-heavy than every other major conference (other than, maybe, the Big 12); no objective observer truly believes anyone other than Kentucky or Florida will win the regular season championship. But is there a third team that can at least make some noise on the national scene? A squad that can give Florida and Kentucky fits in conference play, if not knock them off once or twice over the course of the season?
Let’s name some candidates. LSU brings back first team all-SEC forward Johnny O’Bryant III, junior guard Anthony Hickey and adds six players, including five-star forward Jarrell Martin, from a top-10 recruiting class. Frank Haith has Missouri positioned for another upper-tier league finish thanks to a host of transfers, the best of them Tulsa import Jordan Clarkson, who averaged 15.6 points per game for the Golden Hurricane two years ago. Arkansas and Alabama will win their share of games. But none of those teams are as promising as Tennessee, a team that has yet to qualify for the NCAA Tournament since a flurry of recruiting violations resulted in Bruce Pearl’s firing in 2011. Left to pick up the pieces was Cuonzo Martin, the former Missouri State coach who, while fielding competitive, talented, dangerous teams in his two years at UT – the Vols have finished at least .500 in SEC play, and won at least 19 games overall, in consecutive seasons – has not elevated Tennessee to the lofty national stature it enjoyed under Pearl (lest we forget: It was only five years ago that the Volunteers briefly inhabited the No. 1 spot in the polls). Tennessee should make the NCAA Tournament this season. Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes comprise one of the best frontcourts in the country, wings Jordan McRae and true freshman Robert Hubbs III offer more perimeter firepower than most teams could ever hope to wield, and Memphis transfer Antonio Barton should fill in capably at point guard for Trae Golden, who transferred to Georgia Tech. That’s a talented starting five, and while Tennessee may lack depth, there’s no reason it shouldn’t crack the SEC’s top three this season.
That still doesn’t answer the most important question, which boils down to Tennessee’s potential to make waves outside of the SEC, as a “national player.” I like the Volunteers, and happen to believe this can be something of a breakthrough season for Martin, the year he finally convinces Tennessee fans that they can feel confident in the direction of the program under his watch – that even though Pearl’s show cause penalty expires after this season, there’s no reason to clamor for the former coach’s return. Tennessee has made strides under Martin over the past three years, and it should easily secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but it’s hard for me to think the Volunteers, given the load of national contenders spread out in other conferences (and the dominant top duo entrenched at the top of the SEC), will be considered anything close to a Final Four threat come March. Will there be progress? Yes. Is Tennessee the clear-cut No. 3 in a top-heavy league? Sure. But national contention is a huge leap Martin’s team isn’t quite ready for. This will be a good team, not a great one.