Tennessee Basketball: Seven keys to happy Vols new year

Tennessee Volunteers

Jordan McRae (Photo credit: espn.go.com)

1. Josh Richardson continues to stay aggressive

In the last two games, Richardson has transformed himself from just a solid defensive player to an offensive threat that can strike at any moment.

Coach Cuonzo Martin consistently stayed in his ear throughout the offseason, and through the current course of this season, telling the junior guard to stay hungry and stay aggressive. The persistence is finally paying off as he has led the team in scoring in their past two victories, including Monday’s runaway 87-52 victory over Virginia, the No. 2 rated defense in the nation.

If Richardson can continue to stay aggressive and take some of the pressure off of Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae to produce the majority of the points, there’s no ceiling for how far the Vols can rise after the turn of the new year.

2. Stokes channels the beast within

It’s no secret Stokes is a finely tuned human specimen. At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds (mostly muscle) Stokes is a brutal force in the paint.

Since arriving on Rocky Top he’s been a menace on the boards for opposing teams, but at times has sputtered in the scoring department, which has led to three of the Tennesse basketball team’s four losses to this point in the season.

If Stokes can continue to be a persistent scorer while pulling in 10-plus rebounds a game, Tennessee will again be in the conversation as the legitimate conference contenders everyone expected them to be.

3. No more missed freebies

The Vols have been notorious for giving away free points over the past few seasons. Whether it’s at the charity stripe, or directly underneath the basket, Tennessee has left several points on the court that could have led to valuable victories.

The Vols are shooting a dismal 68.5 percent from the free-throw line, and have missed several easy baskets, none more infamous than Jeronne Maymon’s momentum-changing blocked layup against Wichita State. This led to a Shockers victory in a game that the Vols desperately needed to help their NCAA tournament hopes.

4. Don’t rely solely on Jordan McRae

McRae is a scoring machine for Tennessee, that’s no secret, but even on his best nights he needs some help.

While it’s always nice to have a guy on your team that can score almost at will like McRae, if the rest of the team can’t contribute it’s all for naught. The last two games McRae has almost gone into a non-existent state for the Vols. And that hasn;t been a bad thing- Richardson and Antonio Barton have led the team in the scoring department, taking the burden off McRae’s shoulders.

What it boils down to is the less Tennessee has to rely on McRae having monumental nights, the more victories will come.

5. Freshmen contribution

Darius Thompson has been a god-send for Tennessee this season. A three-star true point guard coming out of high school, the true freshman seems very underrated with the way he’s performed thus far this season.

Thompson is the first true point guard the Vols have had since Ramar Smith ran the point back in 2007.

Tennessee also needs more contribution from A.J. Davis and Robert Hubbs III. Davis could face being redshirted by season’s end if he can’t continue to keep himself in the rotation, but so much more was expected out of five-star Tennessee-native Hubbs.

A happy Vols new year would consist of more development from Thompson, and a major step up from Hubbs.

6. Better road effort

Since taking over in 2011, Tennessee has suffered 23 losses in just 36 games played outside of Thompson Boling Arena.

With trips to the O’Dome and Rupp Arena coming up in conference play, their road effort will have to improve greatly in order for the Vols to keep from dropping the majority of their nine upcoming road games.

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7. Solid bench effort

While the team as a whole can’t rely so much on the superb play of McRae to show up each game, the starters need added support to come off the bench.

Just two games ago against Morehead St., Derek Reese made his 2013-2014 season debut and did so in a big way, finishing with 12 points, 10 rebounds, and four blocks in their 82-67 victory.

If the Vols can continue to see consistent improvement from their bench as the season progresses into the new year Tennessee will finally look like the team most expected them to be in the preseason: a deep team that can wear its opponents out physically and control each game.

It’s typically not until the end of January that Tennessee’s fortunes seem to turn around and they make their late push for a tournament bid, but if they can carry the momentum they’ve gained from the past two games into the new year, the Vols’ season may not end in such a grim manner after all.

Happy new year everyone!

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