By Randy Moore
Rocky Top News
The bad news: Tennessee will rely heavily on six newcomers this basketball season. The good news: They are very talented newcomers.
Head coach Bruce Pearl lost a ton of experience when senior guards Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith and Jordan Howell exhausted their eligibility last March. He lost still more experience when forward Duke Crews and point guard Ramar Smith – a couple of well-seasoned sophomores – left the program shortly thereafter.
Rival coaches are not shedding any tears for Pearl, however, mostly because the six new arrivals are lankier, quicker and more athletic than the five departures. Since Pearl's up-tempo system thrives on wearing down foes with transition offense and fullcourt defense, more athleticism and more depth should equate to more success ... just not right away.
For all of the talent in this rookie class, it is still a rookie class. That means there will be some growing pains. Those pains will be relieved somewhat, though, by the realization that Pearl has a roster that should mature steadily as the season progresses and peak by tournament time.
The key figure for the Vols is rising junior Tyler Smith. The silky-smooth 6-7 forward averaged nearly 14 points and seven rebounds per game in 2007-08, then thrilled the Big Orange Nation by electing to return for his junior season. He has developed a three-point stroke since transferring in from Iowa following the 2006-07 season and should be one of the top 10 players in college hoops for 2008-09.
The Vols' other key returnees are 6-9, 245-pound Wayne Chism, 6-7 wing J.P. Prince, 6-10 post Brian Williams, 6-6 wing Cameron Tatum, 6-4 wing Josh Tabb and 6-9 Ryan Childress, the team's only senior.
Chism's ability to run the floor and knock down the occasional three-pointer makes him an ideal fit for Pearl's fast-paced game. Prince, who can play any position except the low post, is a one-man bench. Williams is a force on the boards. Tatum is a slasher who redshirted as a true freshman last winter but has shown tremendous offensive capabilities in practice and summer ball. Tabb is a defensive dynamo and Childress is a banger who, like Chism, can step outside and hit the trey.
Although there is a good nucleus of returning talent, Tennessee's future – immediate, as well as long-range – rests with the Class of 2008.
Bobby Maze, a 6-3 junior college transfer, is a virtual lock to be the starting point guard. He has the quickness and passing skills to star in Pearl's system. Heralded freshman Scotty Hopson, an acrobatic 6-6 wing, is a probable starter from game one.
Emmanuel Negedu, a 6-6 freshman forward, brings the kind of inside muscle the Vols lost when Crews departed. Renaldo Woolridge, a 6-8 freshman wing, might be the team's best outside shooter. Daniel West, a 6-2 freshman, projects to be Maze's backup at point guard. Philip Jurick, a 6-11 freshman post, has superior defensive skills but needs a lot of work on his offensive game.
Counting Tatum, seven of Tennessee's 13 scholarship players will be get their first SEC action this winter. Clearly, there's an awful lot of youth on the Vol roster. But there's an awful lot of talent, too.
Predicted Order of Finish (Voted on by SEC Publishers)
3. Ole Miss