To say it was a turbulent offseason for the University of Tennessee men's basketball team is like saying that the sun is hot. It's a bit of an understatement.
By now, you all know the story of Bruce Pearl's barbecue and ensuing transgressions, and you certainly know of his upheaval following a blowout loss to the University of Michigan in the first round of last year's NCAA Tournament. What Tennessee fans don't know is exactly how new head coach Cuonzo Martin and the BasketVols will handle the scrutiny of life sans Bruce Pearl.
Some have forecast tough sledding for Martin's group, and the SEC media has selected Tennessee to finish 11th in the SEC. However, the Vols aren't exactly fielding a rag-tag group and they certainly aren't completely lacking in talent. True, the loss of Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson to the professional ranks have left the Vols without a preseason All-SEC performer for the first time in years, but the Vols do, in fact, return some talent.
Trae Golden is back and he'll be handed the reins as the team's starting point guard, and he's looked the part of an SEC point guard in preseason play. Cam Tatum and Skylar McBee return to provide a shooting presence from the wing, and Jeronne Maymon and Kenny Hall should both be viable options in the post.
The question will be, what can this team's youth provide. Jordan McRae, a sophomore, will be counted upon heavily to score consistently in the absence of Harris and Hopson, and the rangy wingman has some game. However, McRae has been streaky to say the least, so he'll have to find some form of consistency for Tennessee.
Newcomers Wes Washpun, Josh Richardson, Yemi Makanjuola, and juco transfer Dwight Miller also figure to be factors in the rotation, and they'll face the burden of providing Tennessee with immediate depth.
Then of course there is senior Renaldo Woolridge. Woolridge has shown flashes in his time in Tennessee, but unfortunately he has been a disappointment for the most part. If Woolridge can pull it together his versatility as a threat on the interior and from the perimeter make him a matchup nightmare, but he'll undoubtedly have to play more physically on the defensive end.
All-in-all, it's safe to say that the cupboard isn't bare in Knoxville, and it's difficult to believe that this is the second-worst team in the SEC unless you buy into the idea that this team has somehow lost focus because of a tumultuous offseason. Tennessee has a lot of pieces, but the question is do they actually go to the same puzzle, and if they do, can Martin and his staff get them to go together in time.
Tennessee faces a brutal early schedule with an opening round game against Duke in the Maui Invitational quickly approaching. At the end of the day, we're gonna learn a lot about this team before the end of November, but it's hard to imagine that this team isn't capable of competing with other middle-of-the-road teams in this league.
Whether or not they impress the tournament committee enough to make it back to the dance is hard to say, but I think it's within the realm of possibility.