The Tennessee Volunteers have once again–this college basketball season–shown themselves to be a tale of two teams. At 9 – 4 in non-conference play, they could easily be 13 – 0 coming into the SEC. Disappointing losses to the UTEP Miners, Xavier Musketeers, undefeated Wichita State Shockers and North Carolina State Wolfpack can all be attributed to poor shooting performances, but then they have decent non-conference wins over Xavier, the Morehead State Eagles, the Wake Forest Demon Decons and a 35-point blowout of the Virginia Cavaliers.
The disappointing losses coupled with the decent schedule strength means that the Volunteers enter SEC play needing to have success in conference if they are to make it to the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Tennessee doesn’t have to win the conference outright, but they cannot afford to drop a game or two to lower, but still talented, teams in the SEC like the Vanderbilt Commodores, South Carolina Gamecocks or Auburn Tigers.
SEC play isn’t going to be easy. The Kentucky Wildcats and Florida Gators are both still capable of winning the National Championship, the Missouri Tigers have one of the best offenses in college basketball and then the Arkansas Razorbacks, LSU Tigers, Ole Miss Rebels and Mississippi State Bulldogs all have the types of records that can lead to an NCAA Tournament berth.
However, Tennessee shouldn’t worry, because, as crazy as it sounds, the Vols have Final Four level talent. Jordan McRae, who is averaging 19 points a game, can score from anywhere on the floor; don’t forget he trained with LeBron James and Kevin Durant in the offseason. Josh Richardson is one of the most underrated and, in my opinion, best man-on-man defenders in all of college basketball.
Then, you have the real keys to Tennessee’s success or failure, big-men Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes. Stokes and Maymon are second and fourth in rebounds per game in the SEC and first and second in offensive rebound totals and per game. In the losses, they’ve either struggled from the free throw line or struggled making layups. Stokes and Maymon must start playing consistently or the Vols won’t be able to succeed in a difficult SEC.
Do not underestimate Cuonzo Martin’s coaching ability as the 2014 NCAA Tournament draws near. The Volunteers are undefeated against Florida and are 13 – 3 in the month of February under his leadership. He and the rest of the team know that if Tennessee doesn’t go to the 2014 NCAA Tournament, he could lose his job. Expect the Vols to finish second or third in the SEC and slide into the 2014 NCAA Tournament with ease.