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Despite a late-season run, Tennessee found itself on the wrong side of the bubble and—like UVa—participating in the NIT. How does your fan base feel about last year's results?
Frustrated. Somewhat understanding, given that the whole season was played without Tennessee's only pre-season all-SEC selection (forward Jeronne Maymon, who missed the year with a knee injury). But even though Tennessee won 9 of their last 11 SEC games, including two wins over tournament teams in Missouri and Florida and a 30-point shellacking of rival Kentucky, the two losses—to a thoroughly mediocre Georgia team and an NIT-bound Alabama—both came when it seemed the Vols were on the verge of a tournament berth. Even without Maymon, Tennessee had the talent to win those games, and it was the second straight year the Vols rallied to the edge and failed to take the last step.
What's the biggest piece you've lost since last season?
Tennessee only lost two significant contributors from last season, and one was a walk-on, so this question is easy: Trae Golden. Golden started at point guard for two years before transferring to Georgia Tech (where he received a waiver to play immediately, so you'll see him this year) under rumors of scandal (the director of student judicial affairs stepped down around the same time after rumors of inappropriate relationships with athletes). Golden was a controversial player because he was a streaky shooter, a mediocre defender, and probably not a true point guard, but he was the only player on the team competent to handle the ball in clutch situations, and he averaged more than 12 points and 3.9 assists per game in both his sophomore and junior seasons. How Tennessee replaces him will be one of the biggest factors in how this season progresses.
Who is the player who needs to step up the most this year?
The player who replaces Golden: Antonio Barton. Tennessee had no true point guard last year, and the Memphis transfer is the Vols' best bet this season. All the other pieces are in place for a deep tournament run, but Tennessee needs someone to run the offense.
Who is the player UVa fans ought to look out for the most?
This is a hard question, as there are three players who could easily take the lead roles. Jordan McRae took over the offense late last season, scoring 14 or more in nine games in a row before a 9-point showing in the conference tournament-ending loss to Alabama. He reached 30 twice in that span, hitting all six three-point attempts in a win over LSU and eight of eleven from deep in a loss to Georgia. McRae was named to the first team all-SEC team and was a front-runner for the SEC Player of the Year award ultimately won by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Jarnell Stokes was a January enrollee in 2012, so the 6'8, 260 pound forward is entering his second full season in orange. Stokes was a five-star recruit out of high school and averaged 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in what was a disappointing season for a kid who hoped to be a lottery pick. We'll see what strides he's taken in the offseason, but Stokes could anything from a consistent double-double guy to a legit star.
And third is Jeronne Maymon, the emotional leader of the team who missed last season with a knee-injury and returns this year for his redshirt senior season. Like Stokes, Maymon is listed at 6'8 and 260, but his build is stockier and he plays a more physical game—like a poor man's DeJuan Blair. Maymon struggles with taller opponents, but he will overpower smaller posts, especially when the game isn't being called tightly. Maymon averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game as a junior two years ago, and together with Stokes gives Tennessee one of the most powerful frontcourts in the league—if he stays healthy. So take your pick as to who to watch out for. And that's not even mentioning freshman sharpshooter Robert Hubbs, a five-star shooting guard who chose Tennessee over Duke, Florida, and Memphis.
What's your outlook for the season? What's a success, what's a failure, and what's something you can live with?
A success is making the tournament's second weekend. The talent is there—the core of the team is still largely unchanged from two seasons ago, but with Barton switched out for Golden and Hubbs added on the perimeter. The question, in Cuonzo Martin's third year as head coach, is whether he's ready to take the next step in leading the team. Missing the tournament for a third straight year would be a clear failure and should lead to Martin's ouster in Knoxville—his seat isn't hot right now, but it could get so quickly if the team underachieves. Anything in between is a tough call. A solid top 25 season and a first weekend loss will be tolerable, but if the Vols sneak in to the bottom half of the tournament and lose on the first day, athletic director Dave Hart will have to ask some questions about the ceiling of a coach who will be losing three senior starters and potentially a fourth (Stokes) who is hoping to jump to the NBA.