College Basketball Preseason Top 25: #24 Tennessee

AP Photo/Gareth Patterson

AP Photo/Gareth Patterson

24. Tennessee Volunteers

Tennessee has rebounded nicely from its split with program rejuvenator Bruce Pearl, and the hard-nosed, tough-loving Cuonzo Martin seems to have struck a chord with recruits. The Vols return SEC Player of the Year candidate Jordan McRae, who averaged 15.7 points per game last season and easily could have left Knoxville for the NBA. McRae has next-level size (6-6) and is a terrific shooter and capable rebounder (4.1 per). But he’s not the only Volunteer who will be playing for pay in the near future. 6-8 junior forward Jarnell Stokes is a load inside, averaging 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game last year. Stokes has got the potential to turn into one of the best players in all of college basketball. He is athletic and tough inside, and could end up a first round pick in next year’s NBA Draft.

Still, Stokes may not be the best interior player on the team, as fifth-year senior Jeronne Maymon (12.7 points, 8.1 rebounds) returns after missing the entire 2012-13 season with a knee injury. You may remember that Maymon went for 32 points and 20 boards in an overtime win over Memphis at the Maui Invitational early in the 2011 season. If the 6-8 power forward can become the same player he was when he went down, Tennessee has a chance to be very dangerous.

BOTTOM LINE: The Volunteers are loaded with NBA talent and should be one of the best teams in the SEC. For the first time in the Cuonzo Martin era, Tennessee will be expected to reach the NCAAs, and this bunch could be more talented than the 2010 squad that reached the Elite Eight. While there’s plenty of reason for optimism, the Vols will also be handing the keys of the offense over to a true freshman in Darius Thompson. His play might make the difference between another deep NCAA run and disappointment.

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