Volunteer basketball set for big year

It is almost that time.

While most Volunteer faithful are fully enthralled in football right now, it will soon be basketball time in Tennessee once again. This edition of the BasketVols has all the makings of a good one and certainly could prove to indeed be a “Tougher Breed.”

In Cuonzo Martin’s first two years, the team got out to a rough start before finishing strong but still missing the tournament. In year one the players were getting acclimated to his system and did not bring in Jarnell Stokes until January. In year two Jeronne Maymon missed the entire season, and his loss was hard to overcome until conference play. This year the Vols are healthy and experienced to begin the season, and expectations are high.

While the Vols lost contributors Trae Golden, Skylar McBee and Kenny Hall from last year’s team, there is still plenty of talent returning and a good crop of newcomers to offset the losses.

Tennessee is returning two players that were All-SEC a year ago in Stokes and Jordan McRae. Stokes, a double-double machine, was second team All-SEC with averages of 12.4 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game. McRae, who can catch fire better than anyone to wear the orange since Chris Lofton, was first team All-SEC and challenged for “Player of the Year”, leading the team in scoring with 15.7 points per contest.

The duo carried the Vols last season, almost lifting the Vols to a NCAA Tournament appearance. After seeing the improvement each player has shown year-to-year since they got on campus, there is plenty of reason to assume their performance will be even better this year.

While that talented tandem may indeed be better this year, their numbers could potentially go down. That is not a bad thing though, as the Vols will be deeper than they have been since their “Elite Eight” run in 2010. The return of Maymon could do wonders for Tennessee if he is the same player he was before his knee injury.

Maymon was, by all accounts, the best player on the team in the 2011-2012 season. He was voted second team All-SEC, giving the team 12.7 points per game to go with a team-leading 8.1 boards per game. The offense could be run through him, as he was also a competent ball handler and surprisingly good playmaker for a big guy. If he is back at full strength, that will open things up for the entire offense and give opposing defenses another legitimate threat to worry about in the post.

While Tennessee has an experienced, accomplished trio of players to lead the team, the depth of this year’s squad is what could really set them apart. It starts with a familiar face in Josh Richardson, who is possibly the team’s best defender on the wing. Word is he has really improved his outside shot to go with his already steady defense. He has been a great find by Martin and will continue to contribute at a solid level.

Tennessee fans are also very excited to see some fresh faces this year. Five-star recruit Robert Hubbs chose to come to Knoxville, and having a combination of McRae, Richardson and Hubbs out on the wing will give opposing teams fits.

After losing Golden in the offseason, point guard was a bit of a concern, but it appears the Vols could actually be better off. Tennessee was able to lure in Antonio Barton, who was allowed to transfer after earning his degree at Memphis. Barton could be a perfect fit for this Vols team with his tough defense, playmaking ability and ability to knock it down from outside. Freshman recruit Darius Thompson will also log minutes at the point and could prove to be a big steal.

If Martin can get all these pieces to fit together and get out to a good start early on, this team will easily make the Big Dance. If things really get to clicking, the team could be legitimate contenders to win the SEC. The consensus pick is for the Vols to finish third in the conference, but with the inexperience at Kentucky and concerns with injuries and suspensions at Florida, Tennessee could be one of the biggest surprises in the nation.

Tennessee will tip-off the season Tuesday, Nov. 12 at Xavier. The game will start at 9 pm and be televised on Fox Sports 1.

Edited by: Will Lomas