College Preseason Top 25: No. 8, Tennessee
Veteran Vols are ready to storm the SEC.
Just how good can Bruce Pearl’s Volunteers be this season? Well, they return all but two players from a team that won 21 games and finished tied for the top spot in the SEC East. Also worth noting, the two players lost averaged a total of 3 minutes per game. Based off that fact alone, the answer to the proposed question above is pretty darn good. Sure, Kentucky is going to get more preseason love (even in this countdown) but Tennessee has the talent, and more importantly, the experience to match up with the Wildcats and challenge for top dog in the SEC this year. The Vols will be loaded with talent at every spot on the floor and will have a tremendous amount of size at their perimeter positions. The Vols have never been past the Sweet 16 in four trips, including three this decade, this could finally be the year.
The focal point of the Tennessee offense this season will once again be combo-forward Tyler Smith, arguably the top returning player in the conference. The senior has been on the radar of NBA scouts since his freshman season thanks to his great frame and athleticism for the small forward position at the next level. The in-state product is a tough match up for any college defender given his 6-7 frame and quickness with the basketball. Smith likes to spot up and shoot quite a bit from the perimeter, though his numbers still leave plenty of room for improvement. Where he really excels though is when attacking the basket off the dribble, finishing these plays at a high rate thanks to his length and ability to finish in traffic. Smith also finishes in the post at a fairly consistent clip, something he will absolutely be able to do during his final season at the college level.
Adding more size to the Vol’s perimeter attack is lengthy two-guard J.P. Prince, a defensive standout who has steadily improved his offensive game as his minutes have increased. A redshirt senior, the Tennessee native posted career bests in nearly every statistical category last season and improved his shooting percentage nearly eight points, thanks in no small part to his work on the offensive glass. Prince is a raw athlete who gets the bulk of his points thanks to his athleticism which allows him to get to the rim at a pretty good rate. The overwhelming percentage of his shots come from within the immediate vicinity of the basket, both in transition where he runs the floor well and in spot up situations where he is likely to put the ball on the floor. He really improved his playmaking abilities last season, but with so many offensive weapons sporting bright orange this season, Prince will earn his keep on the other end of the floor. As a super long off-guard he more often than not will find himself covering the elite backcourt scorer for the opposition, making life difficult with his size and great defensive instincts.
The duo of sophomores Scotty Hopson and Cameron Tatum showed loads of potential during their first year in Knoxville, particularly the former McDonald’s All-American Hopson who is already being billed as a pro prospect. Standing 6-7, Hopson is like Prince in that he sports a massive frame for a shooting guard at the college level; the difference here is that the Kentucky native has a blossoming offensive arsenal. Almost half of his shots came in spot up situations last year where he shot a respectable percentage, including a solid 36 percent from beyond the arc, but he has been at his best when putting the ball on the floor. Hopson is excellent in isolation settings, able to bully smaller defenders and break down bigger match ups with his advanced skill set. His numbers were modest last season due in large part to the amount of playing time and touches he got, but there were still flashes of brilliance, particularly a pair of 20-point showings against Florida and Mississippi State. He still may not wow pundits with his numbers this year since everyone is back for Tennessee, but in watching the action on the floor, it won’t be hard to see that the youngster is a special talent. Tatum proved to be a nice surprise as a freshman, putting up real strong per-40 minute averages. The 6-6 swingman spent nearly half of his time on the court looking to spot up, catch and shoot, something he did fairly well, though he still needs to improve his ability to knock perimeter jumpers. Interestingly enough, Tatum seems to fair worse as a shooter the more time he has to think about the shot. He was at his best last season when he could dribble and fire coming off of screens or catch and shoot on hand off plays, a fact that seems to indicate lack of consistency in shooting form for the youngster. Tatum still needs to diversify his game a little bit as he doesn’t finish well around the rim when he puts the ball on the floor, but he did make a good enough impression with showings like the 22 points he dropped on Gonzaga and the 17 he hung on Georgetown to allow for higher expectations from him this year.
Point guard Bobby Maze will again be expected to run the offense for the bulk of the game this season, after proving very capable in his first season with the club after transferring from the junior college level. The 6-2 Maryland native posted better than a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio in his first year in the SEC and on a handful of occasions proved that he can put the offense on his back for brief stretches if need be. The majority of the floor generals touches come in transition and in spot up sets, none of which is particularly surprising, though he is only an average finisher in these situations. As a spot up player he almost exclusively operates as a catch and release shooter, which is somewhat surprising considering the senior is deadly in isolation situations where he looks to shoot off the dribble. Maze doesn’t have a great perimeter game, but his mid-range game operating on the move is lethal and is a fantastic fallback option for when his teammates aren’t finishing his shots.
Senior Wayne Chism will anchor the frontcourt again this season after really coming into his own during the ’08-09 year, posting averages of 13.7 points and 8 rebounds in just 25 minutes per game. The burly 6-9, 240-pounder from Jackson, TN proved to be a versatile scorer for a power forward, scoring in the post, on the offensive glass and even connecting on 32 percent of his three-point attempts; a high enough percentage that defenders have to respect him out there. In the post he finishes at a solid overall rate, particularly when he turns to his right shoulder. While it is of course a good thing that Chism finishes so well going to that side of the basket, he needs to develop the ability to consistently finish going to his left as well. Junior center Brian Williams has never been a major factor in his two seasons with the Vols, but will need to continue to use his 6-10 frame to take up space and hit the glass hard. It was very encouraging to see him go for 21 and 12 in an early season match up with UT-Martin, and even though the competition wasn’t considered elite by any stretch of the word, it shows that the New York native is capable of contributing at a higher level. Tennessee did go out and lock up a commitment from an elite frontcourt player in 6-9 power forward Kenny Hall from Georgia. The top-100 prospect is a raw athlete with great strength and length. At this point in his career he gets the bulk of his points based off sheer hustle around the rim and by running the floor well in transition. He will be very similar to how Chism was early on his career before his offensive game began to develop some polish.
This is a team that is going to operate heavily on the perimeter. Nearly 80 percent of the jump shots attempted by Tennessee last season were from beyond the arc and one player – Chism – was responsible for 50 percent of their touches on the block. While a thin frontline of big men would be a red flag in most instances, Bruce Pearl’s squad has so much size in the backcourt, that it really shouldn’t be a major issue. With players like Hopson and Prince patrolling the perimeter and crashing the boards, Tennessee will be able to hang with any conference opponent on the glass. Again, perhaps the biggest thing working in UT’s favor this season will be their experience all over the floor. Every major factor on the team (save for Hall) has at least one full year under his belt and the vast majority will be upperclassmen this season. If everyone comes ready to play at the start of the season, expect to hear more than a few renditions of Rocky Top being belted out all the way through March.