The last time Tennessee was ranked in the preseason top 10, it broke the school record for wins and claimed its first SEC regular-season title in more than 40 years.
Currently ranked 10th, the Volunteers are hoping to put a tougher 2008-09 behind them and reach similar heights this season, which opens Friday night against visiting Austin Peay.
Tennessee received its highest-ever preseason ranking - No. 7 - in 2007-08. The Vols responded by finishing 31-5, winning their first regular-season SEC title since 1967, and reaching their second consecutive NCAA regional semifinal.
With a mix of six returning players and six newcomers, Tennessee managed to earn a share of the SEC East title last regular season and finished 21-13, but fell to Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“At first it was tough last year for the freshmen and all the new guys that we had, to come in and expect them to understand everything,” senior guard J.P. Prince said. “You’re replacing Chris (Lofton) and JaJuan (Smith), two of the greatest players that ever played at this school, and that’s tough.”
With more experience and depth, this season’s Volunteers expect to battle Kentucky both in their division and for the SEC title, and their contention will likely hinge on the play of their preseason all-conference senior forwards.
Tyler Smith led Tennessee with 17.4 points and 3.4 assists per game in 2008-09, and chose not to leave for the NBA draft after being projected as a second-round pick. Wayne Chism averaged 13.7 points and was the team’s leading rebounder with 8.0 per game.
While those stalwarts return, senior guard Josh Tabb withdrew from school Oct. 28 to look after his ill mother, and sophomore forward Emmanuel Negedu won’t play after suffering a heart attack Sept. 28.
Even after those losses, the Volunteers are nearly two deep at every position. Junior center Brian Williams and highly-touted freshman Kenny Hall will likely see time in the frontcourt while Smith and Chism rest.
Prince, Scotty Hopson and Bobby Maze return to the backcourt with junior college transfer Melvin Goins also expected to see some playing time. Tennessee also brings back swingman Cameron Tatum, who started four games last season.
The Volunteers’ toughest early challenges figure to be trips to USC on Dec. 19 and Memphis on Dec. 31. They’ll also host top-ranked Kansas on Jan. 10 before beginning SEC play.
Tennessee shouldn’t have as much difficulty with Austin Peay, which they’ve beaten in all seven previous meetings.
The Volunteers have also won 10 consecutive season openers, and 21 of the last 23. They’ll face a Governors team that finished 19-14 last season but returns just two seniors after losing three-time all-Ohio Valley Conference forward Drake Reed to graduation.
One of the returning seniors, forward Ernest Fields, is not expected to return until late December because of knee problems. That leaves Wes Channels to shoulder even more of the load as the team’s only four-year player.
The guard was second on the team in scoring (16.5 points per game) and rebounding (3.8) in 2008-09, and earned preseason all-OVC honors in October.
“I think it is very deserving,” said coach Dave Loos, who begins his 20th season at the school. “I think he has proven himself as one of the impact guys in this league. The big thing is what you mean to your team, and I think he means so much to his team on both ends of the floor.”
Loos has not traveled to Thompson-Boling Arena since a 98-65 loss to the then-No. 7 Volunteers on Nov. 27, 2000.