“We expect to be in the (NCAA Tournament). That’s our goal.”
That was Tennessee junior guard Robert Hubbs III at Tennessee basketball’s media day. He’s not alone in embracing expectations for Tennessee’s basketball team in year one under Rick Barnes. Everyone at Tennessee is telling the media, both on and off the record, that they expect this team to win 20-plus games and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Those expectations may not be as outlandish as they sound. The Vols schedule isn’t particularly difficult. In fact, it may have the easiest, and by virtue of that fact, most boring slate of nonconference home games Tennessee has had in a generation.
Barnes’ team will open with Alabama-Hunstville, UNC-Ashville, and Marshall at home in November with a trip to Atlanta to take on a Georgia Tech team coming off a 12-19 season sprinkled in. You may not want to sit through any of those games but the team should easily start 4-0 with that slate.
After that the team makes a trip to Indy to take on Butler then Brooklyn for two games in the Barclays Center Classic. Other than those games, the Vols face Garner-Webb, Army and Florida Atlantic at Thompson Bowling Arena to close out November.
Even if Tennessee loses each game in Brooklyn and to Butler, the team should be looking at an 8-4 start. The other nonconference games are at Gonzaga in Seattle and home tilts with ETSU and Tennessee State. Let’s say we’re projecting the Vols not to upset anyone and you’re probably still looking at 10 wins before the start of conference play.
While Tennessee was picked to finish 12th in the conference, the SEC is definitely no juggernaut this season. The Vols get an Arkansas team picked to finish 11th twice and Bruce Pearl’s rebuilding Auburn team multiple times as well. With 10 early wins virtually guaranteed simply going .500 in conference play puts Tennessee on the cusp of a 20 win season. An SEC/ Big 12 Challenge matchup with TCU could be the determining game for the Vols to possibly get to 20 wins. Did we mention TCU finished next to last in the Big 12 last year? If they can’t get to 20-wins there, Tennessee still has the SEC Tournament to try to hit the milestone.
There are plenty of questions about the roster. Can either Kevin Punter or Armani Moore emerge as the primary ball-handler Tennessee lacks? How much offense can Robert Hubbs III give them? Hubbs was a 5-star, blue chip prospect but he’s playing for his third coach in just three seasons on The Hill. How much offense can Devin Baulkman, Derek Reese, and Detrick Mostella really give the Vols this year? Who plays in the post?
These are all huge questions to answer. Fortunately for Tennessee they’ll have plenty of time to answer them before they actually play teams that can exploit some of their weaknesses.
That said, even if Barnes and the schedule can get Tennessee to 20 win, there’s still the issue of a presumably weak RPI. A poor non-conference schedule and a weak in-conference slate should leave Tennessee behind the 8-ball with the tournament selection committee.
That said, if Tennessee finishes with 20 wins this season, whether they make the tournament or not, fans will likely feel like the Vols have more than achieved their goal even if the team falls short of what the team is saying in October.