Despite finishing in a second-place tie in the SEC last year, the Tennessee Volunteers missed out on the NCAA Tournament because of their struggles during the non-conference portion of their schedule. With only one starter gone from the 2011 squad, even bigger things are expected this season from the Volunteers.
If Tennessee proved anything under first-year head coach Cuonzo Martin, it is that the team is going to be a very physical squad that will play hard for forty minutes. Backing up that talk with be the undersized, though extremely strong, frontcourt of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. The 6-8, 270-pound Stokes decided to graduate from high school and enrolled at Tennessee midway through last year. He and Maymon are one of the most physical post duos in college basketball, relying on their thick bodies to outmuscle opponents in the paint.
Kenny Hall, Dwight Miller, and Yemi Makanjuola all return to add depth down low. Hall was a starter prior to Stokes' arrival and is more of an athletic shot-blocker. Miller and Makanjoula played sparingly a year ago and will once again find minutes hard to come by.
Further fitting the mold of Martin's rugged style is point guard Trae Golden. He is built like a linebacker and is the team's top returning scorer, but needs to improve his decision-making as a floor leader. Golden underwent offseason surgery to repair a meniscus injury in his left knee, but appears to be at full strength.
Flanking Golden on the wing will likely be Skylar "I have the worst facial hair in college basketball" McBee and Jordan McRae. McBee is primarily a three-point shooter, while McRae is most effective slashing to the basket. There is quality length and athleticism behind those two on the wing with returning role player Josh Richardson and JUCO transfer D'Montre Edwards. Brandon Lopez figures to back up Golden at the point, while redshirt freshman Quentin Chievous adds even more depth. Lengthy freshman wing Derek Reese will likely redshirt this season due to a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
Tennessee doesn't have the talent of a Kentucky, Florida, or Missouri, but the Volunteers' aggressive style of play has them not only climbing back up the ranks of the SEC, but the national scene as well.
Player to Watch: Jarnell Stokes, PF/C
It's unfair to say that Stokes' arrival on campus was single-handedly the reason for Tennessee's turnaround last season, but the team did win ten of its final 15 regular-season games after Stokes suited up in the orange. He spent this summer playing for the U.S. U-18 team that won gold at the FIBA Championships, and that experience should make him even more effective in his first full season of college basketball.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/15 vs. UNC-Greensboro (Puerto Rico Tip-Off)
11/16 vs. Oklahoma State/Akron (Puerto Rico Tip-Off)
11/18 vs. N.C. State/Penn State/UMass/Providence (Puerto Rico Tip-Off)