Despite losing the top two scorers - and three starters - from the team that rose to the top of the rankings in 2007-08, Tennessee isn’t calling this a rebuilding season.
With a tough schedule to begin their program’s centennial season, the No. 14 Volunteers look to pick up where they left off and record their 33rd consecutive home win when they open against Chattanooga on Saturday.
Tennessee returns only two starters from last season’s team, which won a school-record 31 games en route to the Southeastern Conference title and briefly was the No. 1 team in the nation. Despite having to replace Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith’s combined 29.9 points per game, the Volunteers believe they have the talent to compete for another conference crown.
Whether they can fulfill those expectations may depend on how quickly the young players adjust. Freshmen Renaldo Woolridge and Scotty Hopson are expected to start Saturday, but coach Bruce Pearl knows this season’s team - which includes four true freshman and a redshirt freshman - could take some time to find its identity.
“It’s not that they don’t know what they’re good at, it’s that they don’t know what they’re not good at,” Pearl said. “They don’t have the experience to stay out of trouble on the floor, you know, get themselves in certain situations and, ‘I won’t make that mistake again.’”
Pearl is counting on junior forwards Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism - both starters on last season’s team - to carry the Vols in the early going, along with fellow returning upperclassmen Josh Tabb and J.P. Prince. The coach believes Smith, who averaged 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 2007-08, is already starting to step up.
“That’s a very good sign for a team when your best player is your hardest worker. It was that way with Chris Lofton, and it’s becoming that way with Tyler,” Pearl said. “That’s something I’m very, very excited about.”
After playing Chattanooga, the Vols face Tennessee-Martin, Middle Tennessee and Siena in what could be a deceptively difficult early schedule. All four opponents have been picked to win their respective conferences.
“It’s what we want,” Pearl said. “It’s because we feel to have a top 20 program, we feel we have to play that kind of schedule to be able to attract the television package that we’ve been able to attract, to be able to sell the tickets that we’ve sold.”
Chattanooga has lost 30 of 35 meetings to Tennessee all-time, but pulled off a 69-68 upset of the Vols in Knoxville on Dec. 5, 2004. Tennessee defeated the Mocs 76-70 on the road last season, but shot only 36.4 percent from the field and got outrebounded 46-31.
Chattanooga begins 2008-09 with an experienced team seeking an encore for last season’s 18-13 finish and share of the Southern Conference’s North Division championship. The Mocs are expected to start five seniors, including 2007-08 leading scorer Stephen McDowell, who averaged 14.3 points and made 108 3-pointers - second-most in the conference.
Freshman Chris Early is also expected to make an impact. The 235-pound forward initially signed with Oklahoma before enrolling at Chattanooga. He was a high school teammate of Memphis Grizzlies rookie O.J. Mayo.
Like Tennessee, Chattanooga will be tested early, playing seven of its first eight games on the road including a matchup with No. 13 Memphis in the Puerto Rico Tipoff Classic.
“I wanted to do this,” coach John Schulman said. “I think our seniors and our program deserved it. This is what the program needs. … What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger though and we have an experienced bunch so they should be able to handle such a daunting task.”
The Mocs have lost 13 consecutive games to Top 25 teams since upsetting then-No. 19 Illinois in the second round of the 1997 NCAA tournament.