Tennessee is four games into the SEC portion of the schedule and coming off a much-needed win at home over Mississippi State. That win still leaves the Vols near the bottom of the league, but at least recent events have the whiff of some optimism about them.
For fans, the first step in enjoying the rest of the year is likely going to require an adjustment in expectations. Most have probably arrived at this conclusion on their own by now, but coaxing an NCAA tournament berth out of this season is a longshot.
Yes, there's still time to conjure up a scorching hot streak and make a run for it, but the Vols have a couple of factors working against them. The first, and most obvious, is that they largely swung and missed at the best chances to make a strong NCAA case for themselves in non-conference play.
Tennessee is sitting at No. 99 in the RPI rankings right now according to realtimerpi.com. Their win over Wichita State (No. 15) looks great, but losses against Oklahoma State (No. 38), Memphis (No. 48), Georgetown (No. 57) and Virginia (No. 140) more than cancel out that win over the Shockers.
Furthermore, the SEC--a league that's already dealt the Vols three losses in four games--just isn't stacked with enough good teams this season to make a tournament reputation against. Even if Tennessee were to catch fire and go something like 11-3 the rest of the way (which would be 20-10, 12-6), the opportunities against the kind of top-50 opponents that might offset some of those early season losses are going to be few and far between in this league.
Possible? Yes. Likely? Not very.
As of now, Florida (No. 6) is the only SEC school even ranked in the RPI's top-25. Missouri just misses at No. 26, followed by Ole Miss (No. 32) and Kentucky (No. 52).
Am I saying hang it up and wait for next year? Not at all--though next year looks pretty good. With 14 SEC games and the league tournament still to play, anything is possible, something college basketball proves all the time. But if you're enjoyment with this team is going to begin and end with how far they get in March, it could be a rough stretch for you.
For hardcore fans interested in the future of the program though, the next couple of months could provide more than a slight glimpse of what could be in store. And in a league as down as this one, it could also contain more than a few victories in the next six weeks.
Forget about the return of a healthy Jeronne Maymon, that's something that automatically makes this team better by such a huge factor that it's hard to quantify. Though we've gotten a large hint about what his absence means in the last couple of months.
No, what the remainder of this schedule should tell us, or at least give some clues to, is what kind of team Maymon--and potential superstar freshman Robert Hubbs--will be joining.
In my mind, there are two issues involving four players that will not only determine whether Tennessee is able to pick up the pieces of the current season and finish with a flourish, but also what the early perceptions of next year's team are going to look like.
The first concern is whether or not Trae Golden and Jarnell Stokes can approach the level of play Tennessee got from them this weekend in the win over Mississippi State. Secondly, how much more can freshmen Derek Reese and Armani Moore give than the surprising contributions they've made already?
First, and probably more important is the Golden/Stokes issue.
It was worth noting that after the win over Mississippi State both Cuonzo Martin and Josh Richardson, speaking from two different perspectives, stated essentially the same thing. That this team is going as far as Stokes and Golden can take it.
"It was good to see them show up today. When they play well we win games. I think it's as simple as that," Richardson said, summing up the feeling of many after Golden had and Stokes tossed in 18 points with 11 rebounds.
When the duo is on, they're a competent inside-out threat that opposing defenses have to deal with. That their own defense has been something that's limited their minutes from time-to-time is something that Martin's been both up front about, and working proactively to improve.
Additionally, as brilliant as Jordan McRae was in scoring 96 points in four games, it's worth noting that the Vols lost all four to Memphis, Ole Miss, Alabama and Kentucky.
McRae's offense is definitely needed, but when it's part of a more balanced attack--as it was when he had 12 against Mississippi State--the Vols' offense is simply more dangerous.
It also goes without saying that Tennessee is better when McRae isn't charged with being the primary ball-handler. He never griped about it or made excuses about being put in a tough spot, but turnovers were a problem with him in that role
Martin made it perfectly clear what he thought after Saturday's game saying, matter-of-factly-, 'I think in order for us to be successful we need Trae Golden as our point-guard on a consistent basis.'
Golden is always going to be a little bit of a square peg in a round hole at point guard, but he can play at a high enough level for his team to be successful.
The issue with Stokes seems to be a mixture of learning to go hard all the time, not just when he has the ball in his hand, and still learning to come to grips with being the only inside presence opposing defenses are worried about addressing.
He's handling the double-teams marginally better of late, passing out of them twice for a couple of nice assists against Kentucky. Against Mississippi State he had just one turnover in 28 minutes that included a high volume of offensive touches.
There's no doubt that Martin would like to see Stokes step it up on the defensive end, but in my mind an area where he could make a quick and noticeable impact is on the offensive glass.
When he's focused on that task, like he was against the Bulldogs with five offensive boards, he's a force to be reckoned with. Stokes still figuring out the best way to attack defenders with a developing post game, but when he comes up with rebounds in close quarters while the defense is in disarray, he's lethal.
Until he really polishes up his footwork, Stokes is probably always going to struggle with the kind of length he saw at Kentucky. But with his strength and uncanny explosion for someone his size, he should never be limited to one offensive rebound like he was in Lexington.
Don't count me as someone who thinks Stokes is a bust. Not close. Put me down as someone who thinks he needs to play with the kind of fire he just shows flashes of at the moment. Individually, he's also had his game impacted more than anyone else on the roster by Maymon's absence.
As for the young pups, Moore and Reese, they don't carry anything like the burdens Golden and Stokes are lugging around. What they are carrying is the potential to make Tennessee a much better basketball team than the one that's started 1-3 in SEC play though.
Both players were prototypical sleepers coming out of high school, and early on both look like diamond-in-the rough finds that Martin and his staff deserve credit for digging up.
The biggest surprise with Reese was his quicker-than-expected return from shoulder surgery in July. Martin had been whispering to just about everyone during the offseason that Reese was going to surprise people as a freshman.
Moore was a bigger mystery. Reese at least flashed some promise by putting up big numbers against quality competition as a member of the Puerto Rico under-19 team this summer.
Moore seemed even more of an unlikely contributor to this year's team when the limited role he had enjoyed at back-up point guard virtually evaporated after the Georgetown game. He played just 10 minutes over four games in the entire month of December and looked like a complete afterthought in regards to this season.
Then, Martin moved him off the ball to the wing, and out of nowhere, gave him 21 minutes--more than he'd played in the previous four games combined--at Alabama and Moore responded with 7 points on 3-of-4 shooting to go along with four rebounds an assists.
In the crucible of Rupp Arena Moore scored five points, hit his only shot of the game, a three-ball, and grabbed four boards. He showed up again as a player capable of making multi-faceted contributions with 11 rebounds against Mississippi State.
Reese didn't have to go through the ups and downs that Moore did before finding a niche. As soon as he was healthy, he served notice that he might exceed expectations when he stepped onto the floor against Xavier and drained a couple of three-pointers that factored into a 51-47 Tennessee win in his first game.
After missing the Memphis game with an ankle sprain he's continued to make timely contributions. Like Moore, his best effort might have come under the most pressure. His three-pointer with just over six minutes left in Lexington gave Tennessee the last lead it would enjoy and was by any definition, a big-time shot.
Against Mississippi State he hit 3-of-5 behind the arc while scoring nine points.
Those two guys don't have to be stars, not even close. But if they can play between 15-20 minutes a game, and make the kind of contributions we've seen in the past three games, this team has some potential the Vols simply didn't possess leaving December.
Just the threat of Reese stretching the defense, and it's definitely there after he's gone 5-for-10 behind the arc in the last three games, is going to make Jarnell Stokes a more effective player.
Moore may not have been the solution at back-up point like the staff hoped, but there's little doubt he can contribute at the two and three spots. He's shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's a 'plus' rebounder for either of the wing spots, he plays with the kind of grit Martin prizes and he's an athletic option on the wing when McRae needs to slide into the ball-handling role.
Perhaps the most telling stat for both freshmen duo? In a combined 110 minutes in the last three games Moore and Reese have totaled just one turnover. That may not quite be amazing, but it's pretty impressive, considering that all three have been league games and two have been on the road.
The difference between Tennessee climbing towards the top half of the league or spending the rest of the year in the cellar still hinges on Stokes and Golden living up to considerable, but not unfounded,expectations. But if those two can get back on track, the outsized contributions we've seen from the freshmen could make the stretch drive of the season something more than a pit stop on the way to spring practice in Knoxville.
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