Saturday, November 22, 2014 · 4:19 p.m.

Vols' non-conference hoops schedule presents challenges

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First of a series

Tennessee’s basketball schedule is closer to being finalized after Tuesday’s announcement that more tip-off times and television designations had been added. With just a little more than two weeks to go before the start of practice, it’s a perfect time to put the schedule under the microscope and analyze some key games for the Vols, who turned up on Wednesday in a significant preseason top 25 poll put out by Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.

We’ll start with non-conference games today and continue with Southeastern Conference games tomorrow.

Nov. 15-18—Puerto Rico Tip-Off

This tournament is filled with trap games, starting with the first one, against UNC Ashville. True, the Bulldogs lost four starters from their 2012 NCAA tournament team, but veteran coach Eddie Biedenbach is a master tactician and he’ll have as much depth as he’s had in his 16 seasons at the school.

“We have 11 or 12 guys that can really help us,” Biedenbach said. “So there will be a lot of competition on a daily basis, and that will make us better quickly. I have high hopes for this team.”

We’re going to assume the Vols beat Asheville, though, which will lead to a second-round matchup against either Akron or Oklahoma State. Akron has been picked to win the Mid-American Conference East Division, has a legit post man in 7-0, 235-pound Zeke Marshall and is well coached by Keith Dambrot, LeBron James’ old high school coach.

The Zips aren’t afraid of the big boys, either. Remember how they went into Mississippi State last year and won?

“We’re going to have a good team,” Dambrot said.

Oklahoma State is coming off a 15-18 season, but the Cowboys of coach Travis Ford have at least two NBA players on their roster, sophomore forward Le’Bryan Nash, last season’s Big 12 freshman of the year, and freshman guard Marcus Smart, an early favorite to win league freshman honors this season. Another freshman, 5-11 Phil Forte, played with Smart at Flower Mound (Texas) High School and was actually MVP in the Texas Class 5A tournament, which Flower Mound won.

Smart, who played with the Vols’ Jarnell Stokes on the USA’s gold-medal winning U18 team in the FIBA Americas tournament last June, is special.

“We’d put Marcus at pretty much every position but center at this point because he can do it,” Ford said. “He could be a great point guard. That might be his best position because he sees the court, he passes the ball, he handles the ball, and he is a natural leader. Obviously he can play the two, he can play the three, he can play the four.”

If the Vols get past their first two opponents, NC State, a consensus top-five preseason pick, looms large. Point guard Lorenzo Brown and power forward C.J. Leslie are both preseason All-ACC players.

Nov. 26—Oakland at Tennessee

This isn’t quite the same team that defeated the Vols the last two seasons, including last year, when guard Reggie Hamilton “35ed me” as Tennessee point guard Trae Golden described Hamilton’s 35-point explosion that he helped faciliate, but the Grizzlies return four starters. Golden will be glad to know Hamilton is the lone departed starter.

"I think we have a chance to be more than really good," Oakland coach Greg Kampe said.

The Vols have an eight-day layoff between Puerto Rico and this game. They’d been brace up.

Nov. 30—Tennessee at Georgetown

This is Tennessee’s first true road game. The Hoyas lost three players off a 2012 NCAA team that finished 24-9, but coach John Thompson III always finds a way to reload. Watch out for sophomore forward Otto Porter, who last season led Georgetown in rebounding and field-goal percentage (.525).

“There are not too many guys in the country better than him,’’ Thompson said. “He was more prepared than any freshman I've ever had."

Last year, Big East coaches picked the Hoyas to finish 10th in the league. They tied for fourth. Thompson has a good feeling about this team, just as he did a year ago.

“Much like I liked last year’s group, I like this year’s group,’’ Thompson said. “Last year, I had a couple practices before our China trip that had me thinking we could be better than people thought. I’m not at that point yet, but I like this group.’’

Dec. 5—Tennessee at Virginia

The Cavaliers are yet another young team, but winning on the road at an ACC school will be a challenge, and a great RPI builder if the Vols are successful.

Virginia has a good guard, 5-11 Jontel Evans, who will challenge Golden.

“Jontel helps us so much just by being so steady,” Bennett said. “He’s improving offensively, but he does so much for us being aggressive, getting the ball to the basket and on defense, defending on the ball.”

Jan. 4—Memphis at Tennessee

This is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, Memphis is a consensus preseason top 25 team. Second, it might be the last game in the series between these two teams. Tiger coach Josh Pastner has been adamant about not wanting to play the Vols.

The recent recruiting intrigue between the two schools has only added to Pastner’s resolve.

Tennessee has already taken five-star recruit Jarnell Stokes from Memphis, gained a commitment from West Tennessee five-star guard Robert Hubbs and is recruiting two more Memphis stars, Jonathan Williams III and Austin Nichols.

Memphis, which after this season is leaving Conference USA—the league it has dominated—for the Big East, returns four starters from a 26-9 NCAA tournament team.

“I think that’s a real positive,” Pastner said. “That makes it exciting for me. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but what it allows you to do is have some carryover from previous years in terms of terminology and expectations and them understanding me and me understanding them.”

Foremost among the returnees are the backcourt tandem of point guard Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford, who last season finally showed why he was considered a great shooter in high school, and small forward Adonis Thomas, who resisted the urge to leave for the NBA after his freshman season.

“He’s just a good player,” Pastner said. “He can affect the game in many areas without even scoring a point, that’s the big thing. For him, he knows the expectations that we have put on him and we need him to get the job done night in and night out, especially on the glass.”

Next: A look at the Vols’ key Southeastern Conference games.

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