KNOXVILLE – The ink is barely dry on the story of the 2012-13 Tennessee basketball team, but there’s been a growing excitement about the potential of 2013-14 for a UT squad that will return all five starters and add some exciting parts as well.
Coach Cuonzo Martin touched on some of the improvements needed from the returning members after the Vols fell to Mercer in the first round of the NIT last week.
• F Jeronne Maymon (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg in 2011-12)
• F Jarnell Stokes (12.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg in 2012-13)
• G Josh Richardson (7.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg in 2012-13)
• G Jordan McRae (16.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg in 2012-13)
• G Trae Golden (11.9 ppg, 4.0 apg in 2012-13)
KEY RESERVES: G Robert Hubbs; G Armani Moore; F Yemi Makanjuola; F Quinton Chievous
“We have to take better pride in defending individually one-on-one guys and shutting guys down,” he said. “That has to be a passion, not just something we do as a team. It is a passion to defend one-on-one. I think that is the next step.”
And while improving defense will be a focus, finding more consistent offense will be on the offseason to-do list as well. The Vols finished seventh in the Southeastern Conference in scoring offense (66.3 ppg).
Though there were some offensive outbursts and impressive individual performances, there were some forgettable efforts at that end of the court as well. Most notably, the Vols put up a combined total of just 74 points on a two-game road trip at Georgetown and at Virginia in non-conference play.
Though the scoring touch of Jordan McRae helped lift the scoring averages in SEC play, the Vols only hit the 70-point plateau in a third of their conference games.
“We have guys that will score the ball and who can make plays,” Martin said. “You have certain guys individually like [freshman guard] Armani Moore, who reminds me a lot of myself my freshman year going into my sophomore season. I had to improve my shot and improve in some areas. He is one of those guys who is willing to work extremely hard.”
Key additions coming: Improvement of those who return from 2012-13 will be the most immediate focus, but the Vols will also bring on some key additions.
Even though he’s one of the most veteran players on the roster, forward Jeronne Maymon can be categorized here. The senior took a medical redshirt last season after a knee injury was not fully recovered by the start of SEC play.
The 6-7, 260-pound forward averaged 12.7 ppg and 8.1 rpg in 2011-12 on his way to second team All-SEC recognition. Paired with true freshman Jarnell Stokes that season, that duo became one of the top frontcourts in the SEC – a tandem that should be reunited next season.
Maymon’s ball handling is undervalued as well. He’s a pin-point passer when double teamed in the post and can even help bring the ball up the court in some situations. The former Marquette transfer resumed full-speed practice with the team in February and should be completely healthy for his final campaign.
Five-star guard Robert Hubbs of Newbern, Tenn., is another anticipated addition for 2013-14. The 6-5 guard is a consensus top-20 prospect nationally who averaged 25.6 ppg as a senior at Dyer County High School. He’ll add more offensive firepower to the backcourt.
He’s joined in the signing class by forward A.J. Davis and point guard Travon Landry. Point guard Darius Thompson recently pledged to the Vols and is expected to sign during the spring signing period.
Questions remain: Though the Vols have the look of a team set to return to the NCAA tournament in 2013-14, there are still some questions that must be answered:
• Who’s the odd man out?: The Vols have one too many scholarship players pledged for next year at this point. Does that mean McRae or Stokes might test the professional waters early? Will one of the signees not make it in? Perhaps one of the lesser-used reserves might seek (or be encouraged) to transfer.
• What’s the state of the point guard position?: After a mid-year slump, rising senior Trae Golden found his touch to help fuel the late-season run. The Vols can’t afford another prolonged slump from him, though, if they want to make a run next season. And who’s the heir at the position? Landry and Thompson are possibilities, but neither looks like a sure-fire prospect at this point. Moore played some point earlier in the season, but seems to have settled in as a wing player. Rising junior Brandon Lopez, a walk on, has seen some situational action.
• Is Martin happy with his contract?: Don’t expect Martin to go elsewhere, but he certainly is not being paid at the level his teams have performed. Despite finishing second in the SEC in 2011-12 and fifth in 2012-13, he’s tied for the 10th-highest paid coach in the conference. Martin’s not the type to complain or take personal business public, but expect that to be an issue addressed behind the scenes this offseason.
• Can they find some depth in the post?: Maymon’s injury completely changed the outlook of 2012-13, and another injury to him or Stokes could do the same for next year. The departure of senior Kenny Hall leaves rising junior Yemi Makanjuola, who is strong on defense, but limited offensively, as the only natural post who can come off the bench. Quinton Chievous, Derek Reese and Davis are others who could help out down low, but aren’t proven, traditional bigs.
• Who will stretch the defense?: It appears size and athleticism won’t be a problem for next year, but who will knock down 3s to keep the defense honest? McRae certainly can in situations. They’ll need more, though. Departing senior Skylar McBee didn’t have a memorable senior year, but he kept defenses honest. Somebody will need to slide into the role to open up space next year.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga