Tennessee’s first basketball practice is in the books, officially launching a run-up to what fans hope is a return to the good old days, that six-year run of six straight NCAA tournament appearances orchestrated by former coach Bruce Pearl.
After two consecutive trips to the NIT, which ended in home-court flameouts, the fans are ready for the Dance, and this team is capable. In fact, it’s capable of making a lengthy run. Here are a few keys to ensure that happens:
• Jeronne Maymon’s knee has to hold up. The 6-7 senior forward missed all of last year when his knee was slow to respond after corrective surgery. But last year’s loss is this season’s gain. So far, in individual workouts and now the Vols’ first practice, Maymon has participated in every drill his teammates have. That’s a good sign.
There’s no overstating Maymon’s value. Not many teams in the country have a guy capable of going for 30 points and 20 rebounds, let alone in the same game, which Maymon did to Memphis two seasons ago. But Maymon’s role may change a bit. He won’t be needed to score as much as he was in his junior season because the Vols have more weapons.
But Maymon does so many other things well. He’s a good high-post passer. He can dribble the ball up court if the Vols’ point guard is pressured. He can make perimeter shots, so vital for a four man in coach Cuonzo Martin’s system. Most important, he’s a vocal leader other players respect.
Tennessee will carefully manage Maymon’s workload this season to make sure his knee holds up, and if it does, the Vols, who won 20 games without him last season, will be a much tougher out.
• Antonio Barton has to take over the point guard spot. But by all accounts, the immediately eligible Memphis transfer has already begun that process. Players and coaches alike talk about how it seems as though Barton had been in Knoxville his entire career. He’s bonded with his new teammates, particularly guard Jordan McRae. And he’s saying the right things, too.
“He’s a good shooter,” McRae said, “but he’s said he’s not looking to score, that his goal is to average six or seven assists.”
Barton averaged just 1.9 assists in three seasons at Memphis, where he could never beat out Joe Jackson and become the starting point guard. But Barton’s role was different there. And he doesn’t have to average six or seven assists to be valuable. He’s a 42 percent career 3-point shooter and a relentless on-ball defender, two skills that elevate him above the player he replaces, Trae Golden.
Any fan watching the Vols’ practice steamed live on the web on Tuesday may have spotted this, too: Barton is fast. That’s going to open up opportunities for the Vols to score more in transition, something they couldn’t consistently do with Golden at the controls. The best way to score against the zone defenses that stymied the Vols at times last season is beat them down the floor. That should happen a lot more often with Barton running the show.
• Josh Richardson has to become the team’s glue guy. And he’s capable. Already, he’s got one load off his back with the arrival of Barton. Golden was a notoriously poor defender, which meant that at times the Vol coaches had to hide him and make Richardson guard the opposing team’s point guard. That chore wore the poor dude out.
This season, Richardson can focus on checking two and three men. He’ll be able to lock down the other team’s top perimeter scorer. And that’ll give the Vols another edge.
Richardson is also capable of expanding his offensive game. He did that a year ago as he displayed an array of pull-ups, post-ups and floaters. And over the offseason he put in considerable time expanding his range past the 3-point line.
Richardson doesn’t have to make a ton of 3s to be valuable, because he’s already a blender, a guy who helps makes his team a cohesive unit. But if he’s added that last wrinkle to his game, he’ll be a key cog, whether he starts, as he did last season, or comes off the bench as the team’s sixth man.