KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee men’s basketball team opens preseason play tonight at 7:30 against NCAA Division II member Brevard (N.C.) College in Thompson-Boling Arena.
UT, which came one point short of its first Final Four last season, is No. 23 in the preseason Associated Press poll and No. 20 in the coaches’ poll. Many analysts think the Volunteers could be much better than that, but some look at the departures of three important seniors and an ongoing NCAA investigation into coach Bruce Pearl’s program and question how focused the team will be on the floor.
Here are five of the biggest questions facing the Vols, whose regular season tips off with a Nov. 12 home game against UT-Chattanooga.
1. How focused is the program?
This question is aimed more at the coaches than the players. Players generally show up and do what they’re coached to do. But the ongoing NCAA investigation into UT’s recruiting practices could be a burden on Pearl and his staff all season. How they hide that to the players is probably this season’s biggest key.
2. Who leads on the floor?
Melvin Goins has emerged early as the potential leader, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing, considering he’s a senior point guard. But the Volunteers also need some sort of leadership from junior guard Scotty Hopson, a former five-star recruit who has logged as many significant minutes as any player on the roster.
3. How big is Big Baby?
Senior center Brian “Big Baby” Williams looks better than he ever has in his uniform. The 6-foot-10 Bronx native is now a fit 272 pounds, and he looks much leaner and more cut than when he emerged as a force in the paint during last season’s Elite Eight run. Without Wayne Chism in there to help him — though 6-9 UNC Wilmington transfer John Fields will help, and 6-9 sophomore Kenny Hall is another good talent — the Vols need a big season from the loquacious Big Baby.
4. Who is the second point guard?
Barring injury or an unforeseen circumstance, Goins will be UT’s point guard. He’s looked very good in preseason camp, with last season’s knee injury finally 100 percent rehabilitated. But he can’t play 40 minutes every night. Highly touted freshman Trae Golden is more of a natural combo guard, but coaches have been happy with his play at the point so far. If that doesn’t work out, the Vols might need help from sophomore shooting guard Skylar McBee in that role.
5. Will everyone accept his role?
The Vols lost three productive seniors last season in Chism, wing J.P. Prince and point guard Bobby Maze. But they’ve added three very talented freshmen in Golden, wing Jordan McRae and versatile forward Tobias Harris, as well as Fields. And 6-7 Marquette transfer forward Jeronne Maymon will be eligible in December. And it stands to reason that most of their returning players improved in the offseason. UT could have as many as 13 players whose abilities command playing time. But the Vols have only 200 minutes and one ball at a time. Some surely won’t play as much as they want, and egos might need to be massaged.
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesrucker or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.