Tennessee Volunteers (22-8, 12-4 SEC, 2nd Round NCAA)
Any volunteer is a good volunteer, but there are an awful lot of first-time blood donors in Knoxville. Blue Ribbon projects THREE true freshmen as starters, which means two things: 1) Bruce Pearl lost some players, and 2) Bruce Pearl has brought in some players. Gone are starters PG C.J. Watson (15.3 ppg, 3.9 apg), F Andre Patterson (9.4 ppg, 6.7 rgp), and C Major Wingate (10.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg), as well as key reserve G Stanley Asumnu (8.0 ppg). The three FR projected as starters are highly touted PG Ramar Smith, PF Duke Crews, and C Wayne Chism. These talented newbies join one of the top shooters in the country in G Chris Lofton (17.2 ppg, .437 3FG%, .917 FT%) and a quintessential "team guy" in G/F Dane Bradshaw. The perimeter depth is there with reserve guards Jordan Howell, Marques Johnson, Jajuan Smith and FR Josh Tabb. The glaring question mark is depth up front with Wingate's unexpected departure.
Pearl's teams play fast and they score the ball efficiently. This team will be greener than last season, but it is probably more talented. The Vols played the #20 fastest pace last year and ranked #20 in Adj Off Eff. They played solid D as well, ranking in the top 100 by creating lots of turnovers. However, opposing teams roasted the Vols when they did beat the pressure by shooting 36.1% from Three and a whopping 52.6% on two-pointers. This was among the worst in the country (#309), but Pearl's style will give up easy hoops if teams can beat the press. However, Pearl's intensity is here to stay and UT should not drop off too much from 2005-06. If the FR deliver and the post holds up, they will likely be a Top 25 team again this season.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (19-14, 7-9 Big XII, NIT First Round)
The Huskers can be assured of one thing: they will NOT look like last season. Not only did they lose three starters and some key reserves, but coach Barry Collier left for the AD job at Butler, his alma mater. The new coach, Kenneth "Doc" Sadler, has a completely different personality as well. Nebraska is going to be a very different basketball team than they were a year ago.
Can they be better? That might be a tall order considering that F Wes Wilkinson, G Jason Dourisseau, G Joe McCray, and F B.J. Walker combined for nearly 40 points and over 20 rebs per game and none of them returned to Lincoln. Sadler did a good job saving most of Collier's recruits and the talent level looks pretty good (they like incoming 6-11 Aussie C Aleks Maric) , but this is a young team in a coaching transition. They will rely heavily on the senoir leadership of PG Charles Richardson, Jr. (4.4 ppg, 3.3 apg) and SO G Jamel White (8.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, Big XII All-Freshman). The incoming talent will have to contribute early and often. The Tops play the Huskers in Lincoln on Sat., Jan 6.
In just hours, practice officially begins across hoops nation. From Pauley to The Palestra, from Austin to Ann Arbor, and from North Carolina to North Dakota State, teams can now implement press schemes and do tip drills with coaches and whistles present. Find a local college tipoff party, load up the young 'uns, and watch some live roundball! This writer will be attending Hilltopper Hysteria in Bowling Green tonight. Details coming tomorrow.