Coming off a first-round loss in the NIT, a preseason ranking in the top 25 is a steep rise in expectations for Tennessee. On paper, they have the ability to live up to this ranking. But when I think of the Volunteers, the alliterative word that comes to mind is "volatile."
The team's two biggest contributors from a year ago, Jordan McRae (15.7 PPG) and Jarnell Stokes (12.4 PPG, 9.6 RPG), are back. Trae Golden is gone, having transferred to Georgia Tech. The Volunteers will expect Memphis transfer Antonio Barton to fill his shoes, but there's no guarantee that happens. The transition to a new team may not be so smooth, and as College Basketball Talk's Rob Dauster points out, Barton was never the primary ball-handler for the Tigers.
Don't get me wrong; Barton is talented and will make this team better. Just don't expect too much from a guy who has averaged just 1.5 APG in his career, yet is expected to be the facilitator of the offense.
It also doesn't help that Barton's backcourt mate, Robert Hubbs, will be a freshman. According to ESPN's scouting report (subscription needed) Hubbs's "ability to grasp the lead guard spot will be his growth experience." So I don't foresee Barton getting much help from Hubbs when it comes to distributing the ball, although both will be able to put it in the basket.
If things go well for the Volunteers, they could be a serious threat to a high seed in March.
As for the front court, the Vols are hoping Jeronne Maymon can team up with Stokes to form a strong duo inside. It's entirely possible, as Maymon averaged 12.7 PPG and 8.1 RPG when he last played. But that was the 2011-12 season, before knee injuries kept him off the court all of last season.
The starting five will be pressured to produce results unless anyone on the bench steps up as a key contributor. Skylar McBee, last year's sixth man, graduated. Josh Richardson, this year's likely sixth man, played starter's minutes last year (30.7 MPG) but managed just 7.9 PPG. With less playing time coming his way this season, Tennessee's best bench player won't be much of a factor.
This team has talent, but I'm hesitant to say everything will work out smoothly over the course of the season. Barton won't be the ideal point guard for this offense, Hubbs may have some growing pains, and Maymon's injury history will loom over the team until he can prove his durability.
If things go well for the Volunteers, they could be a serious threat to a high seed in March. If things fall apart, missing the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season may not be out of the question.
But let's split the difference; say the backcourt starts slowly but comes on late, and Maymon misses a few games but plays a majority of the season. If something along those lines occurs, I think Tennessee can safely call itself the third best team in the SEC and earn a tournament seed in the upper half of the bracket.
From there, anything can happen. I know one thing, though: this season will be interesting for the Volunteers. Quite volatile, indeed.