It seems like just yesterday Kentucky was cutting down the nets in New Orleans after winning the NCAA men’s basketball championship, but the season has suddenly rolled around again.
Practice begins on Friday, so it’s a good time to take a serious look at Tennessee, which missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years last season under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin but appears capable of making the Big Dance field again next March, provided the following questions are answered in the affirmative:
• Is point guard Trae Golden ready to take his game to another level?
If the answer to this question is yes, the Vols, too, can ascend to another level. Golden was inconsistent on both ends of the floor last season, but in fairness to him, his role had dramatically changed. His playing time was sporadic as a freshman, so it was his first time making major contributions. And he was doing it for a new coach and learning a new system.
Some have questioned Golden’s toughness, shot selection, defense … but when he’s good, he’s a great straight-ahead passer, can score on the drive or with a reliable 3-point stroke and can take over games. Golden can score 25 points one night and hand out 10 assists the next, but he needs to become more consistent at penetrating and finding open shooters, and he needs to be more of a disruptive defensive presence at the point of the opponent’s attack.
He is more than capable of both.
• Will the Vols become more efficient running coach Cuonzo Martin’s five-man motion offense?
Typically, when a coach who utilizes the five-man motion takes over a new program, his players struggle for a good half season before they finally get the hang of the all the cutting, screening and passing principles. By season’s end, though, the offense begins to produce more scoring opportunities, and the team’s scoring average and shooting percentages increase while their turnovers decrease.
Looking back at Tennessee a year ago, that’s exactly what happened.
In year two of the motion, players are usually even more comfortable, new wrinkles are introduced by the coaching staff and offensive efficiency takes another couple of strides forward.
Tennessee has an added advantage of having conducted 10 practices and played four games in Italy in August. Golden thinks the Vols’ motion will be significantly better than a year ago.
“Everybody has grown up and is more mature,” Golden said. “Our new guys are very smart. We understand [the motion] better now. We understand the cuts. We’re not as stagnant and people are moving. Everybody knows their roles.”
The offshoot of this familiarity, the Tennessee staff hopes, is fewer turnovers and more open looks, which should translate into more made perimeter shots.
• Will Jarnell Stokes crush people in the paint?
The sophomore who was such a revelation as a mid-semester freshman last season will be given freedom to take advantage of his well-rounded offensive game. In other words, he’ll have the green light to take face-up jump shots, even out to 3-point range. But at 6-foot-8 and a newly sculpted 267 pounds, Stokes will also be asked to dominate in the low post.
Everyone who has seen Stokes up close—Martin and his staff; Florida’s Billy Donovan, Gonzaga’s Mark Few and VCU’s Shaka Smart, all of whom served as coaches for the USA U18 team Stokes played on this summer—believe the big man can bury opponents and dunk over them, provide he puts his mind to it.
Would it be too much to think Stokes could average 15 points and eight boards in what will be his first full season? No it wouldn’t.
• Can Jeronne Maymon produce even more than he did last year?
Considering he underwent surgery on both knees after last season, it’s safe to assume that what Maymon accomplished—remember his 32-point, 20-rebound performance against Memphis, or his 19 boards against Auburn?—was done at less than 100 percent.
Was the surgery successful? That’s a big key, and so far, the Tennessee coaches have exercised caution with Maymon, who could be the best rebounder in the Southeastern Conference. If he’s ready to rumble and Stokes’ development continues, Tennessee could lead the SEC in field-goal percentage and rebound margin. And if the Vols do that, they’ll win enough games to make that return to the NCAAs a certainty.
• Can a newcomer step forward, and if so, who will it be?
By all accounts, 6-6 junior college transfer D’Montre Edwards has the best chance of starting. He’s long, loves to rebound and can make shots. But 6-5 freshman Armani Moore may be the most important newcomer, because he’s proven he can play the point.
Last year, when Martin had to rest Golden, the Vols’ offense struggled. Tennessee’s springtime recruiting priority was to find a backup point. Like Edwards, Moore is rangy. He’s good in the open floor and he can get into the lane and score, or find open shooters.
If Moore can provide 10-12 solid minutes a game and Golden has to play only 28-30, the latter will be much more effective. And if he’s more effective, well, see question No. 1 above.