Wiedmer: Departures might help young Vols

Wiedmer: Departures might help young Vols


May 9th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

No college basketball team loses Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson from its possible 2011-2012 roster and emerges stronger for their departures.

So yes, Tennessee is all but certain to fall short of last season's 19 wins and at-large NCAA Tournament bid under new coach Cuonzo Martin.

But that doesn't mean Harris and Hopson electing to keep their names in the 2011 NBA Draft is necessarily a long-term negative for the Vols.

In fact, it might be a positive. Without the Vols' two best players from this past season - not to mention departing seniors Melvin Goins, Brian Williams, Steven Pearl, John Fields and Josh Bone - Martin has absolutely zero expectation to produce anything close to a winning season.

Not that the Vols can't win next season. Laugh all you like, but Jordan McRae and Renaldo Woolridge - assuming "Swiper Boy" puts his musical career on hold long enough to finally earn the four years of free tuition, room and board the Vols have provided him - have the talent to become one of the more dangerous offensive duos in the Southeastern Conference.

Assuming power forward Kenny Hall continues to bulk up, UT also has one of the league's better interior leapers. Then there's former Marquette forward Jeronne Maymon, who often seemed to be in former coach Bruce Pearl's doghouse, but seems to have the physical build (6-7, 260) to fill Martin's preference for players who put defense and rebounding first.

Beyond that, senior Cameron Tatum - who may have actually gotten worse instead of better under Pearl's manic rotations last season - gives Martin a wise, old soul with enough street cred to keep the locker room in line.

Let rising sophomore point guard Trae Golden play in February next season as he played in December last season and the Vols should at least occasionally scare the SEC's elite, possibly even stealing a win or two inside the Boling Alley.

But whether they do or not, the exits of Harris and Hopson give Martin a free pass. Under such dire circumstances, even the least forgiving Vols fan will require little more than an abundance of floor burns and hustle plays to embraces this team.

And anyone who knows anything about the Purdue coaching tree that nurtured Martin to maturity knows that hustle is not an option with those guys. It's Job One, Two, Three and Four thru Six.

Not that winning as many as six league games in an SEC East that could produce three Sweet 16 teams - Florida, Kentucky and Vanderbilt - and two possible Final Four teams in Vanderbilt and Kentucky now that Wildcat sophomore Terrence Jones has taken his name out of the draft.

Toughness might knock off the Gators in Knoxville, but UK and VU should sweep the Vols and Alabama, Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State should all beat them in the West.

That means a conference mark of no better than 7-9, but probably 6-10 or 5-11.

And though the non-conference figures to be easier in Pearl's absence - remember how athletic director Mike Hamilton has protected Derek Dooley with his non-conference schedule - no 6-10 league mark will give the Big Orange a chance to reach the Big Dance.

Again, that's OK. Better to build slow and steady from Day One than Year Two, which would have been the case if Harris and Hopson had remained.

Or as UT's Voice of the Vols, Bob Kesling, noted during a Big Orange Caravan stop last week in Cleveland, "I knew it was going to be a long day when I showed up for [off-season] practice and there were no basketballs."

If only Martin could enact that same rule on game day next winter. Because without a basketball you can't score. And if the other guy can't score, you can't lose.