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October 20, 2009
Tennessee tied for its second consecutive SEC East title last season, but it still was something of a disappointment. The Vols struggled with consistency all season and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The good news is that Tennessee returns its entire nucleus. Tennessee has enough talent to be a top-10 team. Before the Vols can live up to that potential, though, they must improve their basketball IQ and avoid the mental mistakes that haunted them at times last season.
Tyler Smith (17.4 ppg) was a unanimous first-team All-SEC selection last season.
Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism give Tennessee arguably the SEC's top frontcourt tandem. Smith, a unanimous first-team All-SEC selection last season, ranked sixth in the conference in scoring (17.4) and eighth in assists (3.4). His versatility makes him one of the conference's most unique players. Chism is a returning second-team All-SEC performer who can bang inside and also shoot the 3-pointer, though he sometimes takes too many ill-advised shots from beyond the arc. The Vols also should get a lift from the arrival of 6-foot-8 freshman Kenny Hall, the No. 74 prospect in the nation.
Tennessee has emerged as one of the top SEC programs under Bruce Pearl even though the Vols haven't featured an elite point guard throughout his tenure. The Vols are counting on an improved Bobby Maze to run the show this season. Maze averaged 8.2 points and had twice as many assists as turnovers last year, but he battled inconsistency and slumped at the end of the season. Junior college transfer Melvin Goins will see some action at the point, and defense is his forte. The problem is Goins is going to be out for at least two more weeks after undergoing knee surgery. Tennessee also would like to see major improvement from Scotty Hopson, a former five-star prospect who struggled to live up to expectations last season. J.P. Prince improved his numbers across the board last season. Prince and Hopson -- both 6-7 -- give Tennessee the kind of size in the backcourt that can cause plenty of matchup problems.
This Tennessee team is better than the squad that spent the early part of last season ranked in the top 10, though the Vols aren't getting nearly as much nationwide respect now that they're coming off a down season. Kentucky's rise will probably end Tennessee's reign atop the Eastern Division, but the Vols remain dangerous. As long as they stay healthy, the Vols should manage to advance beyond the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Preseason rankings were compiled by basketball writers David Fox, Mike Huguenin, Jason King and Steve Megargee.