Very few teams in all of college basketball had an offseason transition phase as the tumultuous as the Tennessee Volunteers. After barely making it to the 2014 NCAA tournament, the Vols dominated opponents en route to a Sweet Sixteen loss to the Michigan Wolverines – a game that they arguably should have won.
However, head coach Cuonzo Martin bolted for a head coaching job with the California Golden Bears, taking along with him a few talented recruits and leaving the door open for several talented Tennessee players to transfer.
Arguably leaving due to the pressure of the fans and the incompetence of the athletic department in assuring him his position was safe, Martin handed over the reins of the Vols’ Basketball program to former Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles’ coach Donnie Tyndall.
Immediately after Tyndall was hired, I was skeptical. Tyndall was a good coach, but his history of recruiting was clearly lacking. He proved me wrong in the first month, basically selling the University of Tennessee to recruits who hadn’t decided yet and transfer students in a scenario as close to free agency as one can get in college basketball.
Because of this bout of “flash-recruiting” by Tyndall and several underrated returning players, the Volunteers are in prime position to not only make it to the NIT, but make it to the 2015 NCAA tournament as well.
It sounds crazy to say that Tennessee could go back to the NCAA tournament after the departure of key players such as Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes, but their schedule, the overall strength of the rest of the SEC, and their roster states otherwise.
The Volunteers play several potential NCAA tournament teams in non-conference play that should boost their resume for the tournament. The VCU Rams, the Butler Bulldogs, the Kansas State Wildcats and the North Carolina State Wolfpack are all teams that are capable of making it to the tournament, and with “filler” games against Tennessee Tech, Santa Clara, Mercer, Tennessee State, East Tennessee State and Texas Southern, Tennessee is in prime position for non-conference success.
In conference play, it looks even more promising for Tennessee. The Vols only face Kentucky, Ole Miss and Florida once each, and play four of the weaker SEC teams twice. The Volunteers could easily finish the season around 20 wins, which tends to be a necessity for NCAA tournament consideration.
Not only is Tennessee’s schedule promising, but the talent is promising as well. Josh Richardson was arguably the best one-on-one defender in all of college basketball, and the senior can put up major numbers offensively. He will be the key to the Vols’ success or failure during the 2014-15 season.
The lesser-known returners for the Volunteers include Robert Hubbs III, who sustained an injury that required him to miss a huge portion of the season, Armani Moore, who may be the hardest working player on the team, and Derek Reese, who is a highly underrated rebounder. Each one of these players will have a major role this year, whether it’s as a starter or on the bench.
Overall, Tennessee has several key factors leaning their way this season and should finish with around 18 wins. However, the Volunteers will be in several games they are not supposed to win, and be in the bubble discussion all the way up until the Selection Committee makes their final selections.