It wasn’t three weeks ago that we were all ready to write off Tennessee for good this season.
The Vols had just been pasted by a thoroughly average N.C. State at home, a second straight loss that dropped a team expected to compete for a top three finish in the SEC to 6-4 on the season. It wasn’t pretty in Knoxville, as concerns about Jeronne Maymon’s health and point guard play reared their ugly head.
This team had a front line made of up two plodding land warriors and lacked a playmaking leader that could handle the ball. They were going to end up being just another SEC team, a basketball team forgotten about at a football school.
But something funny has happened in the last 10 days. Someone lit a fire underneath the Vols.
In their last game before the New Year, Tennessee mollywhopped Virginia, winning 87-52 in Thompson-Boling Arena, and after laying siege to some poor, non-Division I program, the Vols whipped up on LSU in Baton Rouge on Tuesday night.
Might Cuonzo Martin’s club have turned the corner?
Before we start calling this team an SEC contender, let’s wait and see what they can do against the likes of Kentucky or Florida or Missouri, but for now, I think it’s safe to say that things are trending in the right direction.
What has changed?
For starters, Antonio Barton is finally shooting the ball well. He’s scored 14 points in three straight games and is shooting 11-for-18 from three during that stretched. And while Barton hasn’t developed into the playmaker Tennessee needed, Jordan McRae has done his best to step up of late. He’s averaging 5.0 assists in each of the last three games against Division I competition.
There are still limitations on this team. Their bigs are still on the small side. Maymon’s knees are still going to be a problem. Their point guard issues are not going to solve themselves.
But they not only picked up two wins they desperately needed, this group now has some confidence heading into the throes of league play.
This will be an interesting season for Jeronne Maymon. NCAA rule changes have made defense something of a dirty word this year, and the Tennessee big man happens to play for Cuonzo Martin. That presents a bit of a dilemma.
“It’s definitely very hard to please him on defense,” Maymon told NBCSports via phone. “He really doesn’t care too much about offense. He says some nights your shots will be falling and some nights they won’t, so defense is your consistency every night.”
Maymon is jonesing for consistency this season. He sat out 2012-13 to rehab a nagging knee injury, and he logged very few minutes early in his career as he transferred from Marquette to Tennessee. The Vols were also in turmoil, making the transition from charismatic Bruce Pearl – the coach who coaxed Maymon to Knoxville in the first place – to the more taciturn Martin.
Maymon tries to see the positives in the meandering road he took to this final collegiate season.
“I don’t have as much on-court experience as other seniors, but I’ll tell you I gained a lot of knowledge just being on the bench as far as slowing the game down and getting the mental part,” he said. “Most fifth-year seniors get that mental capacity for processing the game down, but I really grew quite a bit from sitting on the sidelines just watching the game, just picking my coaches’ brains and talking to my players. I think that really helped me.”
A healthy Maymon is the missing piece that makes Tennessee a legitimate contender for the SEC crown, which will be hotly contested by past national title winners Kentucky and Florida as well this season. The strategic and tactical advantages of having Maymon back in the frontcourt alongside last season’s All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes should have Vols fans salivating.
“He and Jarnell are two of the better rebounders in college basketball, two of the most physical guys,” Cuonzo Martin told NBCSports by phone. “You can play those two guys as your four and your five and they feed off of each other. But he’s also a guy with tremendous leadership skills. Jarnell missed him most last season, just having another guy who can control the glass on the back side and draw some of the double-teams. So now Jarnelle becomes a better player with Jeronne back, because he learned how to play without him.”
Martin isn’t taking any chances, either. He has his dominant frontcourt tandem work over their understudies whenever possible. “We try to separate those guys as much in practice as we can, get them going against other guys so those guys can get the experience of how physical the game is played,” Martin said.
The combination of Stokes and Maymon landed at No. 6 on our preseason list of the game’s top backcourts, but the ranking is a bit precarious. If injuries strike, the bench can be a bit thin on big men. Junior college transfer Rawane Ndaiye, nicknamed “Pops”, will see a fair amount of time off the bench. Ndaiye has earned the confidence of his teammates the hard way.
“In practice it’s a lot more chaotic than in games, because coach doesn’t call any fouls; he lets you play. So Pops has shown a lot of poise,” Maymon said. “Him banging up against me and Jarnell has really shown how much he can withstand, and he can play ball.”
Tennessee’s strength extends beyond the frontcourt as well this season; an absolute must in a league featuring the Harrisons, Scottie Wilbekin and hot-shooting Marshall Henderson, amongst other perimeter terrors. Martin will look to Antonio Barton, who traversed the state as a transfer from Memphis to UT, to take some pressure off the inside players.
“You’re talking about a guy who can make shots and push the basketball,” Martin said. “He’s been in big games before and made big shots; he’s a career 40% three-point shooter. Those things help.”
Toss Barton in the mix with 6-foot-6 senior Jordan McRae, who averaged 15.7 points per game last season, and talented freshman Darius Thompson, and you’ll see a pattern emerging. Grit and brawn on the inside, deadly accuracy on the perimeter. It’s the classic basketball yin-yang. If the Vols get lucky and keep everyone out of the trainer’s room, this could be a special season in Knoxville.
It’ll be special for Jeronne Maymon no matter what. He knows this is his last go-round, and he can’t wait to get on the floor in front of a regular-season crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“The first game in front of our fans, being able to step back and hear all that noise and see that Tennessee orange, that’s when I’ll feel like I’m back,” Maymon said. “I’ll probably be very nervous, probably miss a couple of layups maybe turn the ball over once or twice, but I’m pretty sure I can get my feet wet and get back.”
The undercurrent of bold-faced honesty in the Tennessee program these days is refreshing. Maymon can acknowledge his rust, his fear and his potential mistakes because his coach sets a clear standard: you can screw up and be forgiven as long as you own it and learn from it.
“The idea is to be perfect, but we always fall short of that,” Maymon said. “We might make some mistakes, but we know we’ll get that corrected as the year goes on. (Coach Martin) sets a standard. He doesn’t bend or waver on anything; once he puts his foot down, it’s set. That’s what keeps us players on balance. I really appreciate his consistency.”
Consistency is what this season will boil down to for the Vols. They start the season on the road against an always-dangerous Xavier team, and they’ll travel to face last year’s Final Four darling Wichita State as well. In the SEC, Maymon and company will battle big men like LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant III and Florida’s own terrible tandem of Will Yeguete and Patric Young. As if that weren’t bad enough, they have assigned dates with the uber-young and uber-talented Kentucky Wildcats to prepare for.
Maymon knows what’s coming, but he refuses to get caught up in the preps-to-pros hype.
“You can’t approach every game with the same mindset. You’ve got to kind of pick your poison with some teams, and some teams are better at one aspect of the game than others. I’m probably just more focused in on the night-in, night-out grind of each game.”
The grind: it’s not glamorous, but it gets the job done.
All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.
To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. The rest of our Top 25 Countdown can be found here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.
Last Season: 20-15, 11-7 SEC (t-5th); Lost in the First Round of the NIT
Head Coach: Cuonzo Martin (3rd season at Tennessee: 39-28 overall, 21-13 SEC)
Key Losses: Trae Golden, Kenny Hall, Skylar McBee
Newcomers: Antonio Barton, Robert Hubbs III, AJ Davis, Darius Thompson, Rawane N’Diaye
– G: Antonio Barton, Sr.
– G: Robert Hubbs, Fr.
– F: Jordan McRae, Sr.
– F: Jeronne Maymon, Sr.
– C: Jarnell Stokes, Jr.
– Bench: Josh Richardson, Jr.; Derek Reese, So.; Armani Moore, So.; Darius Thompson, Fr.; Rawane N’Diaye, Jr.
They’ll be good because …: The most surprising news of the offseason down in Knoxville came a few weeks after the season ended, when the Vols announced that Trae Golden would be transferring out of the program. Golden was lined up to be arguably the most important piece for Tennessee, as he was the one point guard on the roster with any experience. With a talented and burly front line (Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon) being complimented by scorers at both wing spots (Jordan McRae and Robert Hubbs), all the Vols needed was a guy to get people the ball, but Golden was gone.
Enter Antonio Barton. The Baltimore native and former Memphis Tiger made the decision to transfer to Tennessee after it became official that he would be graduating from Memphis in three years. Barton became a forgotten man for Josh Pastner by the summer time, as he had been recruited over and forgotten about heading into his senior season. While transferring meant jumping in bed with a rival, it also means that Barton, who had an excellent freshman season, will be filling a vital role for a top 25 team that needs him to play 30 minutes a night.
But they might disappoint because …: Tennessee is talented, but this group has as many question marks as any team in our top 25. Four come to mind immediately:
Jeronne Maymon missed all of last season with reoccurring knee problems. Those aren’t the kind of things that just go away. Cuonzo Martin needs Maymon to be healthy because …
… there is no depth on this roster. The drop off from the starting five to the rest of the team is drastic. Martin needs to find a way to develop a bench, both in the front court and the back court.
As good as Barton was as a freshman, he’s never had to be a primary point guard. At Memphis, he played off the ball more. Is he a creator? Is he a facilitator? One of the issues that Golden had last season was that he was too ball-dominant. This team is too talented for that to happen.
Tennessee needs to be able to shoot the ball from the perimeter to give their bruisers inside space to operate. Robert Hubbs III and Jordan McRae are talented scorers, but can they shoot it well enough to be a consistent threat from the arc?
Outlook: There is a pretty clear cut top three in the SEC, and Tennessee can count themselves in that group. But the Vols are also a ways behind both Kentucky and Florida, and much of that is a result of the question marks listed above. There is no question that there is talent on this roster, enough of it to make another trip to the NIT a massive disappointment. Jordan McRae is good enough to win SEC Player of the Year. Stokes and Maymon make up one of the ten best front courts in the country. The Vols are athletic, they are physical and they are going to grind their opponents down every game.
But just because Martin has pieces at his disposal doesn’t necessarily mean that those pieces fit together perfectly. Tennessee won’t play pretty basketball, but if they are getting wins, does it matter?