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The Tennessee rebuild is complete

Previewing the #2 team in the SEC, the Tennessee Volunteers

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Tennessee Preview

#2 Tennessee Volunteers

Last Season: 26 - 9 (13 - 5 in conference) #13 kenpom

My Prediction: 24 - 7 (13 - 5, 2nd in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 12.5 - 5.5 (3rd in conference)

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Rick Barnes | third season 57-44

Last season turned into Rick Barnes appreciation season as the oft forgotten Tennessee Volunteers amassed the best record in the SEC and did so being the 13th team in the media’s preseason poll. In hindsight it’s pretty incredible so few had faith in Rick Barnes and his roster. I wish I could come off high and mighty but I had them 11th. They had a tough early schedule matching up against Purdue, Villanova, North Carolina State, North Carolina, and Wake Forest and I’m not sure them going 9-2 through that slate was predictable. Few could have predicted they sweep Kentucky and go on to win the league on the back of a largely unproven roster.

Queue credit to underrated recruits exceeding their ranking like Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Queue a fair or massive amount of credit to Rick Barnes and his staff for identifying the kinds of guys who’ll buy into a program and for building it up. Rick Barnes was the SEC Basketball coach of the year last year and deservedly so.

Seat Temp: COOL

sec basketball preview tennessee volunteer 10 year look

Coming off the end of the Pearl era, Tennessee fans had an inflated self of program worth which drove Cuonzo Martin out of town and led to the massively awful hire of Donnie Tillman. Barnes didn’t have much to work with when he took over, but he’s built the Vols into a team who can almost expect to be a protected seed this year and make the tournament back-to-back for the first time since Bruce Pearl bounced around Thompson-Bolling Arena.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
James Daniel III graduation 35 48.99% 7.55% 13.35% 9.08%
Chris Darrington transfer 25 14.82% 2.48% 2.76% 3.14%
12.76% 10.03% 16.11% 12.22%

When a great team doesn’t lose very many players or much production off their roster from the season before you can usually expect a similar performance. Expectations are high and when you see what the Vols have lost it makes sense. James Daniel III wasn’t a key cog but a solid role guy. His past as a premier scorer on a lower level allowed him to step in when needed to provide a needed scoring burst on a team who suffered from the occasional drought. Chris Darrington joined up hoping to get more minutes like Daniel and fell behind in the minutes race and transferred to Toledo.

AND, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Grant Williams JR POST 35 71.47% 20.55% 67.27% 15.68%
Admiral Schofield SR WING 35 69.63% 18.81% 60.19% 13.26%
Lamonte Turner R-JR PG 35 62.75% 14.74% 62.73% 15.20%
Jordan Bowden JR WING 35 69.34% 12.38% 62.33% 12.48%
Jordan Bone JR PG 35 57.43% 9.95% 52.95% 18.68%
Kyle Alexander SR POST 34 48.92% 7.43% 79.68% 3.65%
Zach Kent SO POST 2 0.92% 0.15% 31.06% 0.07%
Derrick Walker SO POST 34 21.20% 2.55% 60.57% 1.33%
John Fulkerson R-SO CF 30 19.78% 2.01% 53.50% 1.86%
Jalen Johnson R-SO WING 13 4.68% 0.62% 57.72% 0.78%
Lucas Campbell* SR WING 7 0.50% 0.12% 90.36% 0.28%
Yves Pons SO WING 24 8.79% 0.66% 44.09% 0.67%
Brad Woodson* SR PG 2 0.43% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
Jacob Fleschman* R-SO WING 2 0.35% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
75.91% 83.86% 62.19% 78.95%
NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Grant Williams | JUNIOR | COMBO FORWARD

Part of the key to the turnaround was finding value in under recruited players. No player exuded that matra more than the reigning SEC player of the year, Grant Williams. Williams occupied this same slot last season and is an undersized low block post player who’s surprising athleticism and strength around the rim was the perfect fit for the Vols.

The key for Tennessee this year is Williams being able to find another level to his scoring. After shooting in the high 30’s from three as a freshman Williams took fewer attempts and made only THREE three-pointers. Williams has the ability to be even more dynamic of an offensive weapon for Rick Barnes. With the upper tier teams taking a step up the Vols might have to be even better than they were last year to be close to the top of the conference. Auburn got better, Kentucky got better, and Tennessee getting better is certainly possible but it starts at the top. Can the reigning SEC player of the year get better?

The Vols have so many undervalued and underrated players, having to devote just a sentence or two to each guy is difficult. But I’m going to start with who I think it the most overlooked on the entire roster, and that’s Kyle Alexander. Alexander arrived in Knoxville a wispy 200 lbs at 6’10. Even that weight seemed generous. But he worked tirelessly, and the staff developed him over three years and turned him into an excellent post defender, and a plus offensive player as well. You don’t often get that combination from someone who barely scraped into the top 400. Jordan Bone has such a high ceiling that the mere rumor of him developing a more consistent 3-point shot should terrify defenders who already had trouble keeping him in front of them. If Bone has even more blow-by opportunities you can see his assist rate tick up even further, and he’s already at an elite level.

When Bone isn’t on the floor they can pitch the ball to Lamonte Turner, who excels in a 6th man role (he was SEC 6th man of the year). Turner is a little bit better of a shooter, and a little bit less of a distributor, but that’s also why he and Bone can play together so well also. Another guy who just doesn’t seem to get much credit is Jordan Bowden, who coaches have to beg to shoot at times. He’s an efficient scorer, a high percentage shooter, and a very good defender. In other words he’s the perfect fit for this roster.

What UT gets from it’s bench guys will be interesting. My favorite of this group is Yves Pons, who came on later in the year and is a high level athlete. After playing in just six of the Vols first 17 games, including a season high 11 minutes against Mississippi State. Pons is a big physical wing who could step into a bigger role this season. Jalen Johnson was the highest rated recruit on the team for a while and he barely squeaked into the top 150. A slender wing who’s capable of shooting the lights out, Johnson has struggled to find consistent minutes behind the more experienced players on the team. Derrick Walker’s body makes him easy to slide into a backup role in the post. He’s a tough interior defender who rebounds well and has respectable hands and feet.

For a fun energy guy, John Fulkerson is solid as well. He’s easy to bring off the bench but with so much depth it’s hard to find him extended minutes.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Tennessee vs Loyola Chicago Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Admiral Schofield | SENIOR | WING

Full disclosure, I kind of love Admiral Schofield. He’s a little absurd as a basketball player. There aren’t many 6’5 inch 240 pound chiseled-of-stone wings in college basketball. Schofield is so physically imposing you expect him to be a player he isn’t. He’s graceful and athletic on the perimeter, a deft passer from three positions and maybe the most underrated player in college basketball. He clipped nearly 40% from deep last season and his True Shooting and Effective were both over 50%. More than that was his defense, Schofield’s ability to defend virtually every position gives Tennessee such versatility defensively they ended up as a top 10 defense. Grant Williams gets the headlines but Schofield is the engine which makes the Tennessee defense go.

THEN, WHO’S KNEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr D.J. Burns 6'9 280 ★★★★ 108 POST

Now Tennessee has a highest rated recruit again! Two years ago it was Jalen Johnson at 147, last year he was replaced by Yves Pons at 127, and now it’s D.J. Burns at 108. The fact that the Vols idon’t have a single top 100 recruit is still a thing (but it’ll be broken next year). For this season, Burns is big. I mean, very big. He was listed on the UT roster originally at 280 lbs which looks like it’s come down to 272. But for his size he moves pretty well and has incredibly soft touch. He’ll be tough to move off the block and should fit into the rotation this year.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Jordan Bone Lamonte Turner
(2) Combo Guard Jordan Bowden Yves Pons
(3) Wing Admiral Schofield Jalen Johnson
(4) Combo Forward Grant Williams John Fulkerson D.J. Burns
(5) Post Kyle Alexander Derrick Walker Zach Kent

I basically stuck with what Rick Barnes did last season only adding D.J. Burns in there at the end. The guard depth isn’t what it was last year with James Daniel III and Chris Darrington both gone, but hopefully having Turner handle the ball a little bit more, and slotting in Pons and Johnson at the wing some more, it will balance out I still like it when UT goes small and plays Schofield at the small-ball-four position, with Williams inside. I just think that lineup is terrifying to defend without giving up much defensively.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 24 - 7 | KenPom Projected Record: 22 - 8

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Florida State vs Gonzaga Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home Lenoir-Rhyne - W
Nov 9 Home Louisiana-Lafayett 118 W
Nov 13 Home Georgia Tech 92 W
Nov 21 Neutral Louisville 62 W
Nov 23 Neutral Kansas / Marquette 1 / 29 L
Nov 28 Home Eastern Kentucky 267 W
Dec 2 Home Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 311 W
Dec 9 Neutral Gonzaga 9 L
Dec 15 Away Memphis 107 W
Dec 19 Home Samford 320 W
Dec 22 Home Wake Forest 91 W
Dec 29 Home Tennessee Tech 289 W
Jan 26 Home West Virginia 10 W
avg 152.36

I love how Rick Barnes schedules. Sure there are several boring buy games in the mix but there are plenty of solid challenges with contests against high majors like Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and Memphis. Plus really solid mid-major schools like Lafayette are always there. Then he sets up a neutral site game against Gonzaga, plus the NIT season tip-off where they’ll likely end up facing up against Kansas, and the preseason #1 ranked Jayhawks. The Vols will cap it all off with an SEC-Big 12 Challenge matchup against a top 25 team in West Virginia.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 30 Away Arkansas 56 L
Jan 2 Home Auburn 46 W
Jan 6 Home Kentucky 2 L
Jan 9 Home Vanderbilt 38 L
Jan 13 Away Texas A&M 15 L
Jan 17 Away Missouri 81 L
Jan 20 Away South Carolina 48 W
Jan 23 Home Vanderbilt 38 W
Jan 31 Home LSU 91 W
Feb 03 Home Ole Miss 52 W
Feb 6 Away Kentucky 2 L
Feb 10 Away Alabama 23 L
Feb 13 Home South Carolina 48 W
Feb 17 Away Georgia 63 L
Feb 21 Home Florida 8 L
Feb 24 Away Ole Miss 52 L
Feb 27 Away Mississippi St 59 W
Mar 3 Home Georgia 63 W

The schedule actually favors Tennessee far more than I’ve given them credit for. In fact, the second game against Missouri looks like a better opportunity for them to pull off a win now that Jontay Porter is out for the year. A home and home against Kentucky will be interesting considering UT swept the Wildcats for the first time in a long time this past season. A split seems likely since Tennessee hasn’t lost to Kentucky in Thompson-Boling since Barnes took over. I’d look for that streak to continue, but winning in Rupp will prove a bigger challenge this season. Another very intriguing home-and-home matchup is the Florida Gators. If Tennessee can get out of their first three games in the SEC at 3-0 I think they’d be the odds on favorite to win the league at that stage. The rest of the schedule stacks up really well for them.

OVERVIEW

This was supposed to be the season the Volunteers broke out. If last season would have gone as expected I would have likely had Tennessee (not Mississippi State) as my surprise team to vault up into the upper tier of the league.

The explosion onto the scene a year ago was certainly surprising, especially considering how loaded the Volunteers non-conference schedule looked like heading into the season. They were playing North Carolina, whom they nearly beat, along with road games at Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. Plus their holiday tournament matchup against Purdue, Villanova, and North Carolina State. Only the eventual National Champions could find a way to upend the Vols. And it would seem the rest of the SEC were put on notice that weekend.

The level of defense and efficient scoring carried right into the league season, where despite stuttering to an 0-2 start, Tennessee ripped off eight wins in nine games and eventually shared the league title.

So what was the trick to it all? After everything, Tennessee wasn’t a team brimming with talent. At least that’s what the scouts would’ve told you. The roster, while not composed with ELITE talent, has really really good talent from one to nine. The only real outlier is the Vols two top players, the guys who steer the whole ship, were both woefully under recruited.

Schofield had an offer from West Virginia, Tennessee, and some Horizon League teams. Williams had a few more power conference teams nibbling, but not many.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Both Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner were top 200 guys, and a little known fact about rankings from like 75 to 200 is there’s not a huge difference between them. It’s mostly getting the players into the right environment and developing them, and boy did they pick the right school.

No matter where these players were ranked coming out of high school, Rick Barnes has taken his players and built a powerhouse. I like to point out I was higher on the Vols last season than most and even I had them 9th in the league. Nobody could have predicted what happened outside of their own locker room but its impressive. Tennessee is everything you could want and love about College Basketball. They play together and for each other. They defend. They move the basketball. They crash the boards together.

The Volunteers are a complete team and it’s for that reason they’re right in the mix to win back to back SEC championships this year. Their road won’t be easy and the schedule is tough but on the back of the depth and experience which returns this season I’d expect the Vols to equal their output from a year ago.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in the record prediction for the site listed at the top of the page, and within “the Masses” picks as well. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.