Truthfully these may have been overachievement's considering the Vols had some sizable personnel holes, i.e. the lack of a dominating inside presence, the absence of a top drawer point guard and the dearth of a player who could consistently score of the dribble. As the season unfolded those weaknesses were exposed and exploited.
Furthermore the Vols appeared to flat line emotionally after the victory over undefeated Memphis, and couldn't quite recapture the competitive edge that made victories over Xavier, Gonzaga, Mississippi State, Western Kentucky, West Virginia and Alabama away from TBA possible.
After opening the season with a 25-2 record Tennessee went a more modest 6-3 down the stretch. That's not to suggest they didn't play hard; sometimes it was just the opposite as pushed to rediscover the momentum and flow that characterized their astounding climb to No. 1 despite playing against the toughest schedule in the nation.
Still the toughest part of the schedule came during that 6-3 stretch run with six of the games decided by three points or less. They overcame an 18-point first quarter deficit at Florida, hit a shot in the final seconds to defeat South Carolina in the SEC Tournament and battled to an overtime victory over No. 11 ranked Butler.
Even the loss to Louisville featured a typical tough-as-nails UT rally that reduced a 16-point deficit to a single digit early in the second half. Unfortunately it would be the last, best gasp of Bruce Pearl's valiant Volunteers, as Big Orange fans are left to ponder a future without the services of Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith and perhaps Tyler Smith, who will explore his NBA options.
Because he will be a senior next fall, Ryan Childress will likely return although he saw his playing time greatly reduced as the season progressed. On the other hand Cameron Tatum, who only played in seven games as a freshman, might be a candidate for departure.
Should Tyler Smith go pro early the Vols would lose their best and most versatile talent. That would make a difficult rebuilding job more complex. As good as he was in four seasons as a starter, Lofton didn't exactly fit Pearl's scheme. He lacked the size and quickness to be a great defender and his offense could be neutralized by one good defender. What Tennessee will miss most from Lofton was his incredible range and ability to come up big in the clutch.
On the other hand, JaJuan Smith was probably the closest thing UT had to a defensive stopper. He had the quick hands and feet to affect the steal and was outstanding in transition. His shooting percentage (.383) from beyond the arc was virtually the same as Lofton's .384 average. He tended to be something of a streak shooter and could get careless with the basketball, but he was explosive and an ideal fit at the two guard.
Finding perimeter threats may be Pearl's biggest challenge, but the Vols should be stronger inside with Brian Williams and Wayne Chism gaining a year of experience and prospects like Renaldo Woolridge and Phillip Jurick arriving in the fall. Daniel West will get an early look at point guard and could help solidify the position for Pearl.
Much attention will now be focused on the recruitment of Scotty Hopson of Hopkinsville, Ky., who is expected to choose from a list that includes Mississippi State, Kentucky and Tennessee. He had committed to the Bulldogs last fall but reopened the process. Ranked the nation's No. 3 small forward, the 6-foot-5, 180-pound Hopson is rated five stars by Scout.com and could play shooting guard. Named a McDonald's All-American he could have an immediate impact on The Hill.
Hopson was recently interviewed by Scout.com's Dave Telep who asked him about the schools he was still looking at?
"Mississippi State of course," Hopson replied. "Tennessee, Texas a little bit. A little on Kentucky. Louisville is in the mix.
When asked what he was looking for in a school Hopson said: "It's just about feeling comfortable in the situation, that's why I need to take some more visits. I haven't really visited a lot of the places to know if I'm going to be comfortable there or not. The only place I visited (officially) was Mississippi State; I went to Tennessee like a year ago but I haven't seen any of the facilities.
"I still have Mississippi State big on the list but its about me choosing the best for me. I want to make sure if I do go to Mississippi State or Tennessee, any of them places, it's going to suit me for the best. I want to make sure I'm making the best decision."
If Hopson is comfortable with a system that showcases his superb skills, Tennessee might just earn his signature and the Vols won't miss a strike next season.