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At Tennessee, bet on culture winning out in a transition year

Previewing the #3 team in the SEC, the Tennessee Volunteers

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

Over the last two seasons, Tennessee existed as an outlier.

How often does a team with zero top-100 recruits evolve into a top-10 juggernaut with legitimate Final Four aspirations? While the Volunteers came up short of that goal, coach Rick Barnes funneled the will and ire of under-recruited players into a monster of a roster — an ultimate testament to the culture he’s established in Knoxville.

Every coach stresses hard work, focus on team success over personal, and an us-against-the-world mentality. If you’re lucky, you’ll be good. Tennessee was great. Powered by Grant Williams, the 6-foot-5 son of a Navy man, the Volunteers went from the No. 103 team in KenPom his freshman year to a few plays away from the sport’s summit.

Now there’s a new question: How durable is the culture Barnes has tended to so meticulously? Can it carry forward during a year of transition, and as the program starts to reap benefits on the recruiting trail? In other words, can the Volunteers keep the same chip on their collective shoulders?


Previous SEC Previews

Tennessee Preview

#3 Tennessee Volunteers

Last Season: 31-6 (15-3 in conference) No. 10 KenPom

My Prediction: 21-10 (11-7, 3rd in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 10.3-7.7 (6th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 5th in conference

KenPom Projection: 20-10 (11-7 in conference) No. 19

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Colgate Raiders vs Tennessee Volunteers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Rick Barnes | Fifth Season, 88-50

As Barnes’ tenure came to a close at Texas, many analysts focused on its ending instead of the full scope. When both sides agreed to move on, the general sentiment was that Barnes had gone stale, underwhelming despite accruing talent in Austin. It wasn’t long before he landed in Knoxville with many wondering whether a late-career renaissance was possible.

Taking over for Donnie Tyndall wasn’t a quick rebuild, either. Yet Barnes identified undervalued assets on the recruiting trail and excelled at player development. The success of the past two seasons should also be a salve, as the program pauses before considering its ascent next year. While Barnes reportedly toyed with the idea of filling the vacancy at UCLA this spring, he ultimately stayed put — and secured his staff raises in the process.

With Barnes locked down, recruiting on the upswing, and staff continuity, we should probably expect the Vols to remain a fixture in the SEC race for a while.

Seat Temp: COLD

tennessee 10 year look 2019

Barnes only missed the Big Dance once in 17 seasons at Texas, and he’s made two consecutive trips with the Vols. Even if the Vols have been riding a roller coaster over the past decade, Barnes’ track record instills confidence that the program is on stable ground. If you set the over-under on appearances at 7.5 in the next decade, I’d take the former.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Grant Williams graduation 37 78.47% 22.93% 25.05% 15.69%
Admiral Schofield graduation 37 78.07% 20.10% 16.67% 15.61%
Jordan Bone professional 37 81.00% 16.41% 16.49% 16.20%
Kyle Alexander graduation 37 58.54% 8.93% 11.27% 11.71%
Brad Woodson graduation 5 0.80% 0.26% 0.33% 0.16%
Derrick Walker transfer 30 10.56% 0.82% 0.72% 2.11%
Lucas Campbell graduation 7 0.93% 0.16% 0.03% 0.19%
61.67% 69.61% 70.56% 61.67%

Now, if you think that third place seems a tad, uh, lofty for the Volunteers, that’s normal. There aren’t many programs not named Kentucky that can lose a two-time SEC Player of the Year and still be a factor. The last player to pull off that feat before Williams was Corliss Williamson nearly two decades ago. And how did Arkansas fare in 1996? The Hogs, who won a national title and played for another, slid to 9-7 in the SEC’s western division.

You can’t understate Williams’ value. He was worth nearly 25 percent of UT’s offensive value and sported a glittering 124.0 offensive rating. It’s better to assume the Volunteers will have to cobble together his production from various pieces of their current roster. You can’t forget Williams’ counterpart Admiral Schofield, either. The lightly recruited forward also turned himself into an All-SEC player, becoming a premier scorer along the way. Finally, Jordan Bone’s top-end speed made him a one-man fastbreak, while his deft touch in the mid-range complemented Williams and Schofield. In the center of it all was Kyle Alexander, who evolved into a stout defender and was terrific around the rim.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Lamonte Turner SR PG 28 57.61% 10.12% 54.70% 9.26%
Jordan Bowden SR WING 36 66.58% 12.62% 59.90% 11.98%
John Fulkerson JR CF 36 28.70% 3.72% 61.50% 4.79%
Yves Pons JR WING 35 27.31% 2.54% 56.10% 2.41%
Jalen Johnson R-JR WING 26 10.03% 1.29% 64.30% 1.11%
Jacob Fleschman R-JR CG 5 0.80% 0.10% 37.50% -0.09%
Brock Jancek SO POST 7 0.60% 0.00% 0.00% -0.03%
Zach Kent R-SO POST REDSHIRT
38.33% 30.39% 29.43%
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Colgate Raiders vs Tennessee Volunteers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Lamonte Turner | SENIOR | COMBO GUARD

Part of what made Tennessee so difficult to defend over the last few years was the versatility of their stars. Meanwhile, Turner was in the middle of the rotation, switching between point guard and the wing based on the lineup Barnes chose. His consistency on catch-and-shoot jumpers and coming off screens explains how he can easily toggle between those positions.

But where Turner was often deployed was as a defender, guarding the opponent’s top perimeter scorer and usually its lead guard. He was a menace and one of the Vol’s most vocal leaders on the floor. Turner’s energy and leadership will be vitally important this season as the bodies around him are changing quite drastically.

The majority of Tennessee’s returners were low-usage players who played spot minutes. Barnes tended to keep his bench short, with Yves Pons — a high-level athlete, fierce defender, and limited offensive threat — occupying the greatest reserve role. If the French native is cutting to the rim or running the floor, he’s valuable, but a scattershot jumper hampers him in the half-court.

Then there’s John Fulkerson, who steps into Alexander’s place on the interior. Used as an energy guy, Fulkerson wasn’t asked to do much more than defend and mop up on the glass. We might also see a little more from Jalen Johnson this year. Johnson was well regarded out of high school, but he struggled to find a place on a deep team. Now with some added weight and open minutes, maybe he can make an impact.

Finally, Zach Kent is just hoping to play after redshirting as a freshman and missing last season with an injury. Just seeing the floor will be a satisfying outcome.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Purdue vs Tennessee Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Bowden | SENIOR | WING

Bowden did a lot of things well and was a great complimentary piece Williams, Schofield, and Bone. Spacing the floor and shooting 41.4 percent from behind the arc in SEC play kept defenses from loading up. Yet Bowden is a capable ball-handler and secondary creator, especially turning the corner on dribble hand-off actions in Tennessee’s spin on the flex offense. Maybe Tennessee doesn’t have a dominant lead guard in the mold of Bone, but a pair of reliable hands will do. The harder task for Bowden and Turner will be increasing their productivity without significant hits to their efficiency. Striking that balance isn’t easy.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Josiah-Jordan James 6'6 204 ★★★★★ 21 CG
Fr Olivier Nkamhoua 6'8 215 ★★★ 162 POST
Fr Drew Pember 6'9 190 ★★★ 196 POST
Fr Davonte Gaines 6'7 170 ★★★ 207 WING
R-Fr Uros Plavsic 7'0 236 Transfer - POST
So Victor Bailey, Jr 6'4 180 Transfer - WING

Landing Josiah-Jordan James, who was a McDonald’s All-American and a top-25 talent, showed Barnes hasn’t lost his touch on the recruiting trail. Landing the Vols’ best recruit since 2013 also fills a crucial need on the perimeter. With broad shoulders and sturdy frame, James has the power to match the fluidity with which he plays the game. He’s ready-made for early minutes, and the adjustment period to life in the SEC shouldn’t last long.

The rest of the class, though, is operating on a longer developmental curve.

The hope is Arizona State transfer Uros Plavsic will receive his immediate eligibility and provide a boost on the inside. Plavsic has a big body and good timing, but he lacks mobility. But in Barnes’ system, rim protection and rebounding take precedent in the paint. The Vols also have insurance in Drew Pember and Olivier Nkamhoua. Pember is similar to Fulkerson, but has a face-up game that might give him a higher ceiling. As for Nkamhoua, his natural spot on the floor around the rim, but he is trying to extend his range out to 15 feet. Davonte Gaines is a slender wing with some nice upside. He needs some work but has a nice finish on his jumper and glides over the floor.

VJ Bailey is a former top-100 player who transferred after several productive years at Oregon. However, Bailey could never break into the starting rotation and sought a clean slate at UT. He’s athletic and shoots the ball well, but a change of scenery and a redshirt year might make a difference.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Lamonte Turner
(2) Combo Guard Josiah-Jordan James Jalen Johnson Victor Bailey, Jr
(3) Wing Jordan Bowden Davonte Gaines
(4) Combo Forward Yves Pons Zach Kent Drew Pember
(5) Post John Fulkerson Olivier Nkamhoua Uros Plavsic

The known commodities are clear on this roster: Turner and Bowden. For all of James’ promise, we have to see him make an impact on the court. After that, though, depth could be problematic. Yet Barnes has some versatile options to flesh out a rotation, and given that the Vols ranked 288th nationally in bench minutes last year, he’s not afraid to keep it compact.

Pons’ strength and athleticism make him an ideal switch defender, while James, who is 6-foot-6, can easily play all three guard spots. Having Plavsic available behind Fulkerson would also do wonders to shore up the frontcourt. After that, though, you’re hoping developmental freshmen can be of some use.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 21-10 | KenPom Projected Record: 20-10

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Kansas vs Northeastern Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 5 Home UNC Asheville 293 W
Nov 12 Home Murray State 116 W
Nov 16 Neutral Washington 52 W
Nov 20 Home Alabama State 321 W
Nov 25 Home UT-Chattanooga 279 W
Nov 29 Neutral Florida State 14 L
Nov 30 Neutral Purdue / VCU 7 / 23 W
Dec 4 Home Florida A&M 342 W
Dec 14 Home Memphis 50 W
Dec 18 Away Cincinnati 27 L
Dec 21 Home Jacksonville State 215 W
Dec 28 Home Wisconsin 45 W
Jan 25 Away Kansas 10 L
avg 147.00 10-3

Barnes has never been shy about building stout schedules. The question now is whether the Vols can chew the bite they’re going take in non-conference. Right now, they’re slated to face five KenPom top-50 teams. Only two of those games are at Thompson-Boling Arena. We’ll quickly get a gauge reading about this team. Looking over the docket, there are only a handful of games you can mark down as likely wins.

This slate also makes it easy to temper expectations a bit. However, if the Vols pick up home wins over Wisconsin and in-state rival Memphis, it should soften the blow. Win those games, and you’ll still be on the right side of the bubble heading into SEC play.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 4 Home LSU 38 W
Jan 7 Away Missouri 39 L
Jan 11 Home South Carolina 69 W
Jan 15 Away Georgia 53 L
Jan 18 Away Vanderbilt 148 W
Jan 21 Home Ole Miss 60 W
Jan 28 Home Texas A&M 58 W
Feb 1 Away Mississippi State 53 W
Feb 4 Away Alabama 70 L
Feb 8 Home Kentucky 2 W
Feb 11 Home Arkansas 44 W
Feb 15 Away South Carolina 69 L
Feb 18 Home Vanderbilt 148 W
Feb 22 Away Auburn 22 L
Feb 26 Away Arkansas 44 W
Feb 29 Home Florida 12 L
Mar 3 Away Kentucky 2 L
Mar 7 Home Auburn 22 W
avg 52.94

As much as the non-conference should tell you what to expect from Tennessee, the first two games could be a full-on barometer for the rest of conference play. First off, LSU comes to Knoxville. Both teams may not be relying on deep benches, and the Tigers, who have four former top-70 recruits in the starting five, might have more top-line talent. Next up is a road trip to Missouri, a team that might be underestimated by prognosticators.

They do get Vanderbilt, likely the worst team in the league, and Kentucky, arguably the best. The good news is Rick Barnes is 5-3 against Kentucky since he’s been at Tennessee. Meanwhile, the Vols’ remaining home-and-home series — South Carolina, Arkansas and Auburn — are all sorts of manageable. Toss in home dates against Texas A&M and Ole Miss, and UT might be able to build a slight cushion, with Florida’s visit affording a prime shot at a marquee win.

Even if there are some hiccups, the schedule could insulate the Vols from tumbling too far down the standings.

OVERVIEW

The summation of this preview in one word: optimistic.

If we’re clear-eyed in our assessment, there are plenty of obstacles confronting Tennessee this year. Offensively, there are few proven options. And while they should be sound defensively, the lack of depth could put them in a bind if foul trouble hits, especially inside.

The Vols are this high because of the culture Barnes has created.

tennessee returning shot chart 2019 preview
Returning Players Shot Chart per SynergyStats

The Vols’ plight is similar to the peers, which make up a mishmash of teams in the middle of the SEC. There are questions about depth, about how many impact freshmen they have and whether veterans can step up. Yet Turner and Bowden have played plenty of minutes in games that matter. All that’s changing is they’ll be primary instead of tertiary options. Maybe their advanced metrics take a slight dip, but there’s a reason to think they’re up to the task.

Juniors like Pons, Fulkerson, and Johnson are all bought into their roles and the environment in Knoxville. They know what’s needed night in and night out during SEC play. Add in a catalyst like James, and a coach of Barnes’ experience and acumen should be able to make the components fit. Right?

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

My optimism is also the byproduct of watching Tennessee and its staff succeed over multiple seasons with players considered less talented than other SEC programs. We’ve seen the Volunteers solve this equation before. Sure, you might grimace looking at the depth chart. Maybe you think the Vols can’t see the edge of the cliff there about ready to fall off.

That’s also a realistic possibility. Injuries happen. Veterans see their development stall out. Freshmen struggle to acclimate. There’s a world where Tennessee is upside down in the standings, especially if any of Bowden, Turner or James is out for a prolonged period.

However, every team faces that razor-thin margin for error.

Our projection is based on Barnes and the Vols resolving most of our doubts. They’ll be tough to beat in Knoxville, which should set them up for a respectable finish. And if Barnes can flesh out a quality group of reserves, our optimism might be warranted after all.


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.