Hope for hoops?

You'll get keen insights each time you visit InsideTennessee for your Big Orange information. Check out this early preview of the 2014-15 Basketball Vols:

Assuming junior Jarnell Stokes chooses the NBA Draft over his senior year at Tennessee, the Vols will lose four key players from their 2013-14 Sweet 16 team.

The departure of Stokes, plus seniors Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon and Antonio Barton, eliminates 80 percent of the starting lineup, 70.7 percent of the scoring, 63.3 percent of the rebounding and 56.7 percent of the assist total.

Naturally, one segment of the fan base has convinced itself that the sky is falling and Big Orange hoops is due a head-long plunge into hoops hell. Well, maybe not.

McRae averaged 18.7 points per game as a senior, and surely will be missed. Ditto for Stokes, who averaged 15.1 points and 10.6 rebounds in 2013-14.

Filling the voids left by Maymon and Barton won't be nearly as difficult, however. The 6-foot-8 Maymon played his entire senior season on bad knees. He averaged 9.7 points per game but, minus the lift and agility he had before his knees betrayed him, he struggled at times against taller, quicker, healthier power forwards.

In the Sweet 16 loss to Michigan, for instance, Maymon recorded more fouls (4) than points (2) or rebounds (3) in 17 minutes of action. Conversely, acrobatic backup Armani Moore produced 6 points and 6 rebounds in 20 minutes. Fellow sophomore Derek Reese provided some help at power forward, as well, recording 3 points and 2 rebounds in 14 minutes. Moore and Reese will bring more athleticism to the position in 2014-15, plus they provide a 3-point dimension that Maymon did not. If 6-foot-10 freshman A.J. Davis can add some heft, he could be a factor at power forward, as well.

As for Barton, he was yet another shooting guard that Tennessee squeezed into a point-guard role. He had some very good games but he disappeared in many others. Barton struggled so mightily in the Sweet 16 loss to Michigan that he played just 14 minutes, finishing with 3 points, 1 assist and 2 turnovers. Freshman backup Darius Thompson, who directed the Vols' second-half comeback, recorded 3 points, 2 assists and 2 turnovers in 26 minutes.

Their season stats further underscore the idea that Thompson is more than capable of filling Barton's shoes in 2014-15. Thompson shot better from the field (38.1 percent to 37.3 percent) and from the foul line (74.2 percent to 68.9 percent). He also posted more assists (87 to 76) and more steals (36 to 22), despite playing exactly two-thirds the minutes (620 to 930). Throw in the fact heralded signee Larry Austin will join the Vols' point-guard ranks come fall, and the outlook is even brighter.

Most likely, the rotation of Moore, Reese and Davis will surpass Maymon's 2013-14 averages of 9.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Most likely, the Thompson-Austin duo will surpass Barton's 2013-14 contributions of 7.5 points and 2.1 assists per game with ease.

Tennessee appears better at two positions already.

Make that three. Small forward Josh Richardson grew tremendously the final month of 2013-14 and should continue to evolve as a senior in 2014-15. He may have been Tennessee's NCAA Tournament MVP, scoring 17 points against Iowa, 15 against UMass, a career-high 26 against Mercer and 19 against Michigan. His four-game Dance card shows him averaging 19.25 points per game and shooting 61.7 percent from the field. He's also the team's best perimeter defender.

That brings us back to the tricky part … replacing McRae and Stokes.

Five-star freshman Robert Hubbs was supposed to be the next McRae – similar in size (6-feet-6), athleticism and scoring ability. Hubbs arrived with two significant negatives, however: He had played mostly inside in high school and he had a bum shoulder that needed surgery. After averaging just 5.0 points through 12 games, he opted for a season-ending operation.

Will Hubbs blossom into a McRae-type scorer in 2014-15? If not, could incoming freshman Jordan Cornish help pick up the slack? Those are two questions that cannot be answered until next winter.

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Then there's Stokes. Guys who average a double-double for an entire season don't come along every day, so replacing him will be a real challenge. Rising senior Rawane Ndiaye (6-feet-10, 260 pounds) is strictly backup material. Incoming freshmen C.J. Turman (6-feet-8, 240) and Philip Cofer (6-feet-8, 220) play above the rim but are very raw.

Even with the departures of McRae and Stokes leaving two gaping holes in the lineup, several Vols believe the 2014-15 team will be reasonably good.

"I wouldn't say we're going to be down," Thompson said. "We're losing some pieces but people can work hard in the offseason and become better. I feel like we've got good pieces coming back next year."

So does Barton, even though he won't be one of those returning pieces.

"I don't think there's going to be any drop-off," he said. "They've got a good recruiting class coming in. Guys like Darius and Armani and Rich (Richardson) are coming back from a season that gave them a lot of good experience, so they know what to expect coming into next season."

Maymon agrees that the 2014-15 Vols could surprise some people.

"I think we left the program in good hands, especially with some of the upper-class guys," he said. "I think they're going to do a really good job of leading those young boys."

Underscoring his optimism is a strong faith in head coach Cuonzo Martin.

"Coach Martin is going to be the same guy," Maymon said. "He's got a lot of good guys coming in. That ain't going to change. He's going to instill the same values he instilled in us into them, so they'll be all right."

Thompson believes the struggles of the 2013-14 regular season taught the Vols some lessons that will serve them well in 2014-15.

"We learned that we need togetherness at all times … fighting through things as a family," he said. "As a brother you go out there and die for each other."

Barton sees hope for 2014-15 due to the return of one valuable Volunteer.

"Josh Richardson is the key," he said. "He was real effective toward the end of this season, defensively and offensively. I think he's going to take on a bigger role offensively next season."

Of course, every projection for 2014-15 assumes that Stokes will be playing for pay next winter. That may be a faulty assumption. Rated a second-round pick by most NBA Draft analysts, he will not receive a guaranteed contract if those projections prove correct. Should he come back and develop a mid-range jump shot as a college senior, however, he could climb into the first round of the 2015 draft and get a guaranteed deal.

So, what's the outlook if Stokes elects to return and play for the 2014-15 Vols?

"That would help a lot," Barton said. "They'd be dominant inside and out."

Josh Richardson

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