Second of a series

Last season Tennessee confounded the preseason prognosticators who tabbed the Vols as the 11th best team in the Southeastern Conference by finishing tied for second.

How will the Vols fare this season, when they will be considered among the SEC’s top three or four teams?

There are several reasons to suggest the Vols, who finished a surprising 10-6 in the league a year ago, will be ready for their demanding non-conference schedule, which in turn will steel them for the challenges they’ll face in the newly expanded SEC:


. They have a year playing in coach Cuonzo Martin’s five-man motion offense. It’s a given that any team coached by a proponent of the motion, utilized by former Purdue coach Gene Keady and propagated by his many disciples who have gone on to run their own programs, will struggle for a while. Turnovers by the bucketfuls are the norm.

But once a team gets the hang of the motion, it becomes difficult to guard, so unpredictable is the action that comes from constant movement, screening and passing.

. The Vols, like every other team in Division I, took advantage of a new NCAA rule that allows limited practice in the summer. Martin is a big proponent of carving time out for individual skills work as opposed to other coaches who prefer to simulate game conditions. There’s no doubt Martin used the eight hours a week he had at his disposal to help the Vols fine-tune basic components such as shooting, ball handling, screen setting, blocking out, etc.

. Tennessee’s trip to Italy for four exhibition games was invaluable. Only one team over there was comparable even to a low-level Division I team, but the 10 days of practice before the trip, chemistry building and team bonding and winning all four games gives the Vols a head start to their season.

A few SEC games to watch:

Jan. 9-Ole Miss at Tennessee

This is the SEC opener, and it comes against a team that whipped the Vols in the quarterfinals of the league tournament last March.

Four starters return from a year ago, including 6-7, 240-pound senior Murphy Holloway and 6-9, 225-pound senior Reginald Buckner, who give the Rebels a formidable front line. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy shored up a major weakness by recruiting shooters, including Marshall Henderson, a 3-point bombardier who was the national player of the year in junior college last season.

“We think he can come in and be a volume scorer,” Kennedy said.

It isn’t fair to call this a must-win game, but the Vols play at Alabama and Kentucky in their next two games.

By the way, Ole Miss and Alabama, two teams from the SEC’s defunct West Division, are among the few teams the Vols will play twice this season under the league’s new 18-game schedule.

Jan. 15-Tennessee at Kentucky

Yes, Kentucky is the defending national champion, but it has been retooled with a new cast of five-star recruits. The Wildcats will be young, but talented, and any Kentucky team always draws energy from the crowd at Rupp Arena.

Tennessee hasn’t beaten Kentucky since Feb. 27, 2010. The key in this game could well come down to this: Can the Vols’ bulky front line handle the Wildcats’ shot blocking, rangy frontcourt of 6-10 Nerlens Noel, 7-0 Willie Cauley-Stein and 6-7 Alex Poythress (who has a 7-0 wingspan)?

Feb. 2-Tennessee at Arkansas

The trip to Kentucky notwithstanding, the Vols may not have a nastier road challenge than at Arkansas, which has added skill and depth since coach Mike Anderson’s debut season a year ago and also regained the services of Marshawn Powell, the 6-7 junior who looked dominant in two games last season before injuring his knee in practice. He sat out the rest of the year.

The Razorbacks also have guard B.J. Young, considered by some to be a preseason All-SEC player, and enough length and athleticism to run Anderson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” fullcourt defense.

The Hogs picked up some help with a couple of transfers, 6-7, 225-pound JUCO transfer Coty Clarke and 6-6, 230-pound former Houston player Alandise Harris, who is appealing for immediate eligibility.

Feb. 23-Tennessee at Texas A&M

The first game against one of the SEC’s two newcomers will be interesting, if only for that reason.

The injury-plagued Aggies struggled in 2011-12, Billy Kennedy’s first season as coach, but have stocked up on talent, including freshmen Alex Caruso, who ESPN rated the No. 17 shooting guard in the country, and 6-1 point guard J-Mychal Reese who ESPN rated the No. 11 point guard. Kennedy alsosigned 5-10 junior college All-American Fabyon Harris.

Kennedy likes his team to run and crank up shots, so the Vols’ defense will be tested, and they’ll be playing in an unfamiliar building, the Aggies’ 12,292-seat Reed Arena.

March 9-Missouri at Tennessee

What will be at stake when the SEC’s other newcomer comes to Knoxville for the regular-season finale?

It won’t be the same Missouri team that won 30 games last season, but coach Frank Haith has replaced four key starters with a host of transfers, including former Connecticut power forward Alex Oriakhi, 6-5 guard Keion Bell and 6-5 junior Earnest Ross, who Tennessee fans may remember-he played his first two seasons at Auburn.