Last Season's Results: Like Gonzaga, Tennessee strives each season to fill their schedule with the best teams in the nation. Bruce Pearl demands that his team be challenged and they certainly were last year. The Volunteers played some outstanding competition a year ago with games against Memphis, Texas, Xavier, Western Kentucky, West Virginia, Gonzaga, and of course the challenging SEC. The difficulty of the schedule did not phase Pearl's squad as they rolled through with a 29-4 record in the regular season. They were blown out in the regular season by Texas and lost head scratchers to Arkansas and Kentucky as well as a rivalry loss to Vanderbilt. They entered the NCAA Tournament as a #2 seed where they dominated American University in the first round and won an overtime thriller against Butler. The Sweet Sixteen was the faltering point for the Vols as they were dominated by Rick Pitino and Louisville. Recently graduated Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith paced the Volunteers a season ago, scoring 15 and 14 points a game, respectively. 6'7'' junior Tyler Smith scored 13 points a game last year and is arguably the best player in the SEC this season. Excellent role players such as J.P. Prince and Wayne Chism also return for the Vols and will be counted on as the back court for Tennessee will be very young.
New Faces: Who wouldn't want to play for Bruce Pearl? Evidently plenty of players are itching to be a Vol as the 2008 recruiting class for Tennessee was one of the best. In my estimation, the best player in the entire class was Scotty Hopson. Hopson, who is now enrolled at Tennessee, is a 6'7'' shooting guard who's potential is off the charts. He comes to Tennessee fitting the exact mold of a prototypical wing. He oozes athleticism but is also very fundamentally sound. I believe that Hopson fits Bruce Pearl's style of play perfectly in that he will be able to run the floor and be active as Pearl demands a fast paced, action paced game. The Arizona program lost an excellent recruit when Emmanuel Negedu decided to ask to be released from his letter of intent. The 6'6'' Nigerian forward quickly made up his mind that Tennessee was the right school for him and will be joining the Vols this season. Another new face with plenty of expectations will be Bobby Maze. Maze, a junior college transfer from Hutchinson Community College in Kansas will be expected to contribute immediately and could possibly start for Pearl's team right away. With the departures of Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, the back court for Tennessee will be very inexperienced as Pearl will be counting on Maze and Hopson to carry a significant load. Philip Jurick, Renaldo Woolridge, and Daniel West will also be newcomers to the program but Maze, Hopson, and Negedu will likely have the largest impact this coming season.
Players to Watch: This year's version of Tennessee basketball will be vastly different from the past few years. Chris Lofton is no longer enrolled at the institution and Tennessee will not depend on his three-point shooting ability. This may not be a bad thing, however. Tennessee is full of 'tweeners, guys that don't really fit any position. The epitome of this is Tyler Smith. Smith is only 6'7'' and at the power forward spot, he is very undersized. Size has never really mattered for Smith as he stepped in right away last season after transferring from Iowa. He can fill up a stat sheet, leading the Vols in assists and rebounds a season ago. Leading this relatively inexperienced team, I think Smith must average around 18 points a game if Tennessee is going to be successful. You could make an argument for every player on Tennessee being a player to watch. I'd love to say Scotty Hopson but I think his play will speak for himself. The guys I'm looking at on the Vols are Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince. Chism was expected to have a breakout season last year but that never really materialized. He averaged only a fraction higher of a point in his sophomore season and didn't really show any great improvements in his game. It is imperative that he improves this season. Smith and Chism will be the engines that drive this team, I'm interested to see how Chism responds. J.P. Prince is a player to watch because he is going to be forced to play a number of positions in the back court. Due to the academic issues with freshman Daniel West, Prince may have to rotate at the point guard spot with Bobby Maze. Prince, who is built like a wing, has earned the trust of the coaching staff to do this but the back court for the Vols is a huge question mark.
TKR's Concern-O-Meter: Extremely High. This is one of the defining games of the season for Gonzaga. I'm more worried about the quality of our play than if we actually win this game. If the game was in Spokane or some neutral site not located in the South, I think Gonzaga would have a good shot to win. Honestly, I have this game as a loss for the Zags but do believe they can win but it would take a perfect game. The Battle in Seattle last season saw the Volunteers completely dominate the Zags on the defensive end. Only Matt Bouldin (21 points) had a game worthy of writing home about. The nice thing to see is that Austin Daye and Josh Heytvelt had decent games a year ago and they are both expected to have huge impacts in this coming match up. Both these teams have to talent and ability to be in the Top 5 when they meet in January but both teams also have enough question marks to have the wheels fall off. We'll see which comes true when the Zags take on the Vols in Knoxville.
What We are Watching for: There is no doubt that the match ups to watch in this game are in the front court. The potential match up between Austin Daye and Tyler Smith should be outstanding. While Smith is more of a physical player than Daye, I think that Daye will be able to use his size to frustrate the undersized power forward. Speaking of size, the Zags have another advantage with the Josh Heytvelt and Wayne Chism match up. Chism is a 6'9'' forward/center and will draw the responsibility of guarding Josh. If he can keep his position on Chism, it will be a great day for Josh. He's got to play with some fire though. This seems like a perfect game for Ira Brown to get some minutes. Although Tyler Smith is listed at 6'7'', I'm not buying it. Brown is undersized but so are the Tennessee forwards. Mark Few should be able to use his extensive depth thanks to the size of the Vols.