The Tennessee Volunteers. Picked to finish THIRD in the Eastern Division of the SEC.
For most teams an overall record of 22-11 might seem like a good season, but for Tennessee it was a deep disappointment, especially considering that the conference record was only 8-8. The Vols had been picked by nearly everyone to win the Eastern Division and perform comparably in the SEC and NCAA tournaments. They did win one game in the SEC tournament (over Auburn) before being eliminated by Mississippi. As for the NCAA, it was a now familiar story: out in the first round with a loss to UNC-Charlotte. There was a widespread perception that the Vols were out of control and poorly-coached, but Coach Jerry Green had been a big winner since coming to Knoxville. Hence it came as a surprise to many that he was sacked. Now, Buzz Peterson, who has been extremely successful at Appalachian and in his single season at Tulsa (where he won the NIT), and a former Assistant Coach at Vanderbilt, takes over. He is certain to demand much more discipline than the easy-going Green and one wonders how some of the remaining Vols will take to this different style of coaching. However, the chief loose cannon of the Vols, 6'0" guard Tony Harris (11.4 ppg, 34.6% from three-point range), has used up his eligibility. Two other departing seniors who played a lot were 6'9" Isiah Victor (12.8 ppg, 6.6 rebounds) and 6'10, 265 lbs, Charles Hathaway (5.1 ppg, 4.8 rebounds). In July, 6'2" junior shooting guard Terrence Woods (5.9 ppg) and 6'1" sophomore point guard Harris Walker (4.6 ppg) were dismissed from the team for "violating team rules." Peterson can still call upon seven returning veterans, a redshirt freshman, and three true freshmen. Despite losing Walker and Woods, he has the manpower for a good team if he can make the players function together sufficiently, good enough for third in the division.
With Walker gone, the point guard job belongs to Thaydeus Holden, a 6'0" JUCO from Seward County (KN) CC, signed by Peterson. Holden averaged 22.2 ppg, can hit the three-pointer, and is reported to be a quick and capable defender. Combo guard, 6'3" junior Jon Higgins, is probably the steadiest player that the Vols have coming back; he was second to Tony Harris in assists (80 to Harris's 119), and hit 48.6% of his three-point efforts, but scored only 6.5 ppg because most of his shots were three-pointers. He should start at shooting guard and back up Holden. There are two other experienced guards: 6'2" senior Jenis Grindstaff and 6'4" redshirt senior Del Baker, half-brother of Vincent Yarbrough. Either one of them is capable of helping in a big way. After missing the previous two seasons, out one year after transferring and then hurt in the first game of 1999-2000, Grindstaff has seen his once promising career nearly wrecked. His shooting did not recover from his long absence from play (31.3% overall, 25.5% from three-point range), but near the end of the season he began to show his true potential. He may blossom under Peterson's coaching. Baker averaged 3.5 ppg in his junior year (1999-2000); he is a long-armed high jumper who is a very good defensive player.
Vincent Yarbrough, 6'7", 210 lbs senior, was a second-team All-SEC choice last year. Certainly his figures (13.9 ppg, 7.4 rebounds, 55 steals, all of them team-best marks) show that he can be exceptionally capable. However, he has a reputation of also getting out-of-control, and it will be interesting to see if Peterson is able to improve that situation. Yarbrough will be the wing forward, and fast-improving 6'9", 215 lbs junior Marcus Haislip is likely to be the power forward. He scored 5.9 ppg and averaged 2.5 rebounds last year; he also shot occasionally from outside and made 35.9" of his 39 three point tries. Little-used (8 minutes of playing time in 2000-2001) sophomore strongman Andy Ikeakor (6'7", 245 lbs), is another returning forward. He is mostly a wide-bodied space-filler, but two incoming freshmen, 6'6" Derek Stribling of Tallahassee FL and 6'8" Elgrace Wilborn of Springfield OH, are more skillful.
Ron Slay, 6'8", 225 lbs junior, should be the starting center. Slay is best known for having the biggest mouth of any player in Division I of the NCAA, but did score 12.9 ppg and grabbed 5.3 rebounds. He isn't a shotblocker, but defends capably and even has hit the three-pointer on occasion (35.6%). The tallest player on the team is 6'10" redshirt freshman Brandon Crump, who is likely to be Slay's backup.
There are some long-range bombers (Holden, Higgins, Yarbrough, Haislip, and Grindstaff). Although there is no giant as big as Hathaway, there is plenty of height in the 6'7" to 6'10" range.
The depth at guard has been eroded; a serious injury there could result in serious problems. No one knows how the veteran players will adapt to Peterson's no-nonsense style. If Yarbrough or some other veteran fails to adapt, there could be some serious consequences. There are no experienced backup players in the front line.
Yarbrough seems to be the key. If he doesn't try to take too much on himself, and has a good year under control, this team will win a lot of games. The coaching is certain to be much better than during the Green years.