Mike Strange: Vols are not blown away by changes in SEC hoops

Kenny Hall on his suspension last season and rejoining the team

Early — way early — it may be, but the winds of change are blowing through SEC basketball.

Three coaches have blown away since the season ended and, per usual, John Calipari will be rumored for at least 20 NBA jobs. And, oh, by the way, two new teams, Missouri and Texas A&M, are blowing in.

Among the coaching ranks there will now be two Martins, Cuonzo and South Carolina's Frank, and two Kennedys, Andy and Texas A&M's Billy.

Seven of the top 11 SEC scorers will be gone when the 2012-13 season tips off.

Four teams — Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Missouri — are being gutted by graduation, the NBA or transfers.

At Tennessee, however, there's barely a breeze. Barring surprises, no SEC team will return more intact than the Vols.

That's generally a good thing.

Tennessee dramatically exceeded expectations by finishing 10-6 in league play and claiming the No. 2 seed for the SEC tournament.

Aside from starter Cam Tatum and occasional contributor Renaldo Woolridge, everyone that matters is back.

That includes senior-to-be Kenny Hall, who was suspended the final nine games. Hall is back in good graces and anxious to capitalize on his second chance.

"I was just not taking care of business that I was supposed to take care of off the court, and Coach took it into his own hands,'' Hall said this week.

"It was something I needed, not just for the team but for myself to grow as a person, as a man.

"He could have easily let me go. He kept me and definitely got me thinking about how to handle situations off the floor.''

The Vols have popped up near the bottom of several early preseason top 25 polls, an indication that expectations should be pointing for a return to the NCAA tournament after a one-year detour to the NIT.

The potential for barely-a-freshman Jarnell Stokes to make significant progress also is in Tennessee's favor.

UT's 18-year-old January arrival is up to his headband in offseason workouts rather than picking out a tux for the high school prom.

"It's a blessing for me to be in college right now,'' Stokes said. "I'd be getting ready to go the prom and graduation and looking forward to being here next year instead of actually living it.''

Stokes will head to Colorado in June for tryouts to make the USA Under-18 team that will travel to Brazil.

This past week saw the spring signing period open. With a few exceptions, the 2012 signing class has taken shape.

Kentucky has reloaded with a vengeance, signing three of the nation's top 15 prospects, including Nerlens Noel as Anthony Davis' shot-swatting heir apparent.

Otherwise, the SEC didn't knock anyone's socks off in recruiting. Florida has one top-40 signee and is favored to land a top-10 recruit, Anthony Bennett. The Gators especially need Bennett in the wake of freshman Bradley Beal's departure to the NBA.

It's fair to ask how much Tennessee has helped itself with the 2012 class. The Vols add three perimeter players, 6-foot-7 Derek Reese, 6-5 Armani Moore and 6-6 juco transfer D'Montre Edwards.

All are unheralded, at least by the recruiting publications. Big deal, said assistant coach Jon Harris.

"They're three-star guys, whatever that means,'' Harris said, "but we don't pay attention to that.

"Especially Coach Martin, but even us as assistants, we trust what our eyes see.''

The SEC will see a very familiar Tennessee team next year. The Vols hope that's a real good thing.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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