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Its reset done, Tennessee is loaded up for another run

Previewing the No. 2 team in the SEC, the Tennessee Volunteers

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

My how the tables have turned. The past decade or so of Tennessee’s basketball history is filled with interesting chapters: a beloved Bruce Pearl undone by NCAA sanctions, a cool reception and exit by Cuonzo Martin, and Donnie Tyndall’s one-year tenure torpedoed by NCAA trouble at his last stop.

And so the Volunteers turned to Rick Barnes, whose final years at Texas were filled with talent but a stale product. Since arriving in Knoxville, Barnes has rebooted and Tennessee is flourishing. Last year, the Vols reset, loaded up on top talent and are readied themselves for another push toward an SEC title.


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Tennessee Preview

#2 Tennessee Volunteers

Last Season: 17-14 (9-9 in conference) No. 68 KenPom

My Prediction: 19-6 (13-5, 2nd in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 1st in conference

KenPom Projection: 17-7 (12-6 in conference) No. 19

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

HEAD COACH: Rick Barnes | Fifth Season, 169-105

Barnes’ later years in Austin led some to believe he was cooked. Yet Barnes’ resume undercuts that notion. He’s won at Clemson and Texas, a pair of schools where hoops is decidedly not the priority. Under his leadership the Longhorns reached a Final Four and, for a stretch, pushed Kansas annually.

In a way, Tennessee mirrors Texas’ culture: football first but with some bright spots in its history. What’s been interesting is how Barnes has gone about the work on Rocky Top. Early on, he developed unheralded guys and built them into a machine. Now, he’s mixing those types of players with truly elite talent. In the last two recruiting cycles, Barnes has landed multiple four- and five-star players. If the blend is right, Tennessee might be better positioned than it was at the height of Pearl’s leadership.

Seat Temp: COLD

tennessee 10 year preview 2020

Historically, Tennessee is a solid program with some good peaks. Nothing in its track record, however, hints at a blue-blood level of performance. Yet Barnes is starting to attract the type of talent to elevate the program into that echelon. With the likes of Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone, and Jordan Bowden, he had the Volunteers applying pressure on Kentucky. Quietly, though, he was developing the cultural core of this team—John Fulkerson and Yves Pons—and amassing blue-chip pieces. Today, you’re not just looking at a perennial NCAA tournament team, but a program that’s reached a level of stability to thinking about SEC titles, protected seeds and Final Four runs. Is it sustainable? We’ll see.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Jordan Bowden graduation 31 86.05% 20.39% 18.31% 19.23%
Lamonte Turner graduation 11 29.76% 6.49% 6.17% 8.23%
Jalen Jones transfer 31 39.19% 5.15% 5.80% 4.82%
Zach Kent transfer 2 0.81% 0.14% 0.08% 0.13%
Jacob Fleschman graduation 5 0.65% 0.14% 0.13% 0.16%
31.29% 32.31% 30.49% 32.57%

It’s easy to understate how valuable Bowden was to the program over his four years. He embodied its culture and work ethic in every way. He got better each year and only saw a dip in his numbers last season when his usage rose to offset Lamonte Turner’s shoulder finally gave out. Bowden had never been asked to be the focal point of the offense, but he balanced it out. When he moved on, only Turner remained, still facing shoulder problems and heavy usage. It wasn’t sustainable.

Jalen Jones came into the program as one of the more highly touted players, but he never quite found a consistent role before heading to Wake Forest as a graduate transfer. The same could be said for Zach Kent, who left for Delaware State after struggling with health and a lack of playing time.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
John Fulkerson R-SR POST 31 75.48% 20.49% 66.30% 23.44%
Yves Pons SR CF 31 84.84% 16.16% 56.30% 17.47%
Santiago Vescovi SO CG 19 46.37% 9.81% 53.30% 7.40%
Josiah-Jordan James SO CG 27 65.00% 9.62% 49.10% 9.91%
Olivier Nkamhoua SO POST 30 27.66% 4.71% 58.60% 4.70%
Uros Plavsic R-SO POST 16 9.44% 2.02% 47.10% 0.86%
Davonte Gaines SO WING 29 24.44% 3.46% 47.40% 4.51%
Drew Pember SO POST 22 9.76% 1.39% 48.10% 1.27%
Brock Jancek JR POST 5 0.56% 0.00% 0.00% -0.05%
Victor Bailey Jr R-JR CG REDSHIRT
68.71% 67.66% 69.51%
NCAA Basketball: Florida at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Josiah-Jordan James | SOPHOMORE | COMBO GUARD

There were times last season where Josiah-Jordan James was the best player on the floor. And there were other times where he just took up space. Transitioning to the college game can be bumpy—even for five-star prospects. Playing off the ball, James could be too passive. In theory, Turner would organize the offense and incorporate James. Instead, Turner’s health and Santiago Vescovi’s arrival left James drifting. James’ size, athleticism and ability to function as a secondary creator will be vital. Barnes’ history in Knoxville is also filled with players progressing. We’ll see how far James has come and whether he has the skillset needed to be a leader on this Vols team.

It’s hard to not include John Fulkerson among the featured players, with his closing stretch putting him the early discussion as a preseason All-SEC pick. During conference play, Fulkerson averaged 15.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in 31.7 minutes. A repeat would ensure the Vols have a backline anchor at both ends of the floor.

Santiago Vescovi returns as well. From the moment Vescovi arrived at mid-season, he took over as starting point guard. Once Turner was sidelined, Vescovi was what the Vols needed, but he was prone to turnovers and obscured solid shooting numbers. If he cuts down on the giveaways, Barnes should have a competent sophomore to set the Vols up.

Olivier Nkamhoua performed well in a limited role off the bench. He’ll face tougher competition for minutes this season, but Barnes is accustomed to developing skilled post players and Nkamhoua fits that bill. The same situation goes for Davonte Gaines who showed flashes in limited action, but he has ideal size for the wing position. Drew Pember and Uros Plavsic should also be fighting for minutes in the post along with Nkamhoua. Plavsic brings a little more size, but Pember showed some of the same flair for making energy plays that Fulkerson did early in his career.

Maybe the most intriguing guy coming back is Victor Bailey Jr., a former top 100 recruit who transferred from Oregon. The combo guard brings much needed shooting off the bench, and could aid in some of the ball handing.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Arkansas Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Yves Pons | SENIOR | COMBO FORWARD

If you don’t enjoy Yves Pons as a player, there might be something wrong with you. He’s a high-energy and high-effort defender, and he attacks the rim and backboard with a steady fierceness. Pons is the kind of defender who can guard every spot on the floor impacts the game in 100 different ways without shooting. But now, as Pons is learning how to score the ball more, he’s improved his 3-point shooting to 35 percent from 28 percent, forcing defenses to close out or stay in contact. If Pons continues his evolution as a offensive threat, he’ll make Tennessee even more dangerous. Which is scary.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Jaden Springer 6'4 204 ★★★★★ 16 CG
Fr Keon Johnson 6'5 186 ★★★★★ 19 WING
Fr Corey Walker 6'8 219 ★★★★ 76 CF
Fr Kent Gilbert* 6'1 164 - - PG
Fr Cole Morris* 6'9 192 - - POST
Sr E.J. Anosike 6'7 245 Grad Transfer CF

So, on top of returning all kinds of scoring and important players, Tennessee enrolls a really talented and deep recruiting class. It’s hard to know who to be more excited about, with either Keon Johnson or Jaden Springer both ready to take the roster by storm. Both are getting love in early NBA mock drafts. Springer is a springy 6-foot-4 combo guard that can defend, handle, and has the blend of balance and strength to score through contact at the rim. He’s the 16th-rated player in the class. Three spots behind him is Johnson, a springy prospect who is also but more of a natural wing.

Corey Walker is a top-80 player but oddly an afterthought in class with Springer and Johnson. Walker is the ideal size for a combo forward, and he looks like he could fit easily behind Pons in a hybrid role early on. Finally, Barnes added E.J. Anosike, a rugged 250-pound post from Sacred Heart who was an elite rebounder in his time in the Northeast Conference.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Jaden Springer Santiago Vescovi
(2) Combo Guard Josiah-Jordan James Victor Bailey Jr
(3) Wing Keon Johnson Davonte Gaines Corey Walker
(4) Combo Forward Yves Pons E.J. Anosike Olivier Nkamhoua
(5) Post John Fulkerson Uros Plavsic Drew Pember

For a long time, I had this depth chart with a more traditional look, with returning starters over newcomers. But as I was going through the personnel, it made more sense to look at some different options in handling the ball.

Springer isn’t a natural point guard, but he’s more athletic than Vescovi, meaning he can cover up turnovers a little better. With Springer and James handling the ball, the Vols’ backcourt has more size, length and athleticism. That puts Johnson alongside Pons, who can space the floor, and Fulkerson, who doesn’t always need post touches to make an impact. Realistically, Barnes has 13 players he can mix and match.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 19-6 | KenPom Projected Record: 17-7

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 25 Home Charlotte 174 W
Nov 27 Home VCU 97 W
Dec 12 Home Cincinnati 59 W
Dec 15 Home Appalachian St 195 W
Dec 19 Home Tennessee Tech 312 W
Dec 22 Home USC Upstate 248 W
Jan 30 Home Kansas 5 L
avg 155.71 6-1

Tennessee begins their season on pause due to Covid issues within the program, which could set them back developing in-game chemistry. The pause also forced them cancel some quality non-conference matchups, but VCU and Cincinnati should be spunky and provide resistance. The centerpiece, though, is a visit from Kansas for the SEC-Big 12 Challenge.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 30 Away Missouri 46 L
Jan 2 Home Alabama 48 W
Jan 6 Home Arkansas 52 W
Jan 9 Away Texas A&M 69 W
Jan 12 Away South Carolina 66 L
Jan 16 Home Vanderbilt 127 W
Jan 19 Away Florida 23 L
Jan 23 Home Missouri 46 W
Jan 26 Home Mississippi State 83 W
Feb 2 Away Ole Miss 44 W
Feb 6 Away Kentucky 20 L
Feb 10 Home Florida 23 W
Feb 13 Away LSU 39 L
Feb 16 Home South Carolina 66 W
Feb 20 Home Kentucky 20 W
Feb 24 Away Vanderbilt 127 W
Feb 27 Away Auburn 75 W
Mar 3 Home Georgia 94 W
avg 59.33 13-5

The Vols didn’t get any favors from the administrators in Birmingham, and the tough schedule is why I have them behind Kentucky. There are also three road games—Missouri, South Carolina, Florida and LSU—that could flip into the win column. If that happens, Tennessee is back in the thick of the title chase. (It also helps that an abbreviated non-conference season could leave Kentucky sorting out chemistry early in SEC play.) A four-game stretch where UT travels to Texas A&M, South Carolina and Florida could also prove tricky.

OVERVIEW

With all the hype and excitement surrounding this squad, you’d assume they finished second or third last season. Yet the Vols were just OK. Fulkerson and Pons are workhorses, but Turner’s injury woes and Vescovi’s bumpy transition landed them at 68th in KenPom. In other words, the Volunteers are expected to jump from a team that would not have made the NCAA tournament to one who could make a deep run just a season later.

This assumes a below-average offense has the parts to make a dramatic improvement. Defense won’t be an issue. But we’ll have to see how Barnes fits together his rotation, and whether a player like James takes a great leap.

tennessee synergy 2020

That said, I believe in UT’s talent. With James back, with two elite freshmen coming in, and with Fulkerson and Pons, the Vols seem to have all the talent they need to break through. There’s just one potential landmine: ball-handling.

Vescovi was a little loose with the ball, and the Vols were 280th in the country in turnover rate. Playing at a slow tempo compounded the problem, because the Volunteers didn’t offset the possessions that they gave away. If Barnes had another point guard or two on the roster, it would be easier to cement them in the top spot.

But the Vols’ turnover rate and efficiency shooting were both poor last year. In theory, they have the talent to address both, but we’ll need to see that happen.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

None of this is to say they can’t be good at those things. Tennessee now has the elite athletes and depth to pick up the pace, which could lead to an uptick in shooting. Obviously, it also makes up for any turnovers.

However, Barnes has never been one to play fast, which shifts the focus back to better ball security. It also puts Vescovi and Springer in the spotlight. Handle it well, and the hype around the Vols becomes very real.

Tennessee will be good, but how good remains the question? Are they going to be a top-30 group? Or do they put all the pieces together and break into the top-10?

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

There are plenty of reasons to buy stock: NBA-level talent, depth at multiple positions, and a coach with a sterling pedigree. Barnes has a team full of fun and exciting young players mixed in with veterans like Fulkerson and Pons. The culture is also healthy. While they’re might be growing pains, Tennessee possesses enough guys to navigate them.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

Maybe the ball-handling doesn’t get better, James stagnates and Pons’ shooting goes awry. Put another way, Fulkerson has to carry the offense as freshmen acclimate. That makes the Volunteers vulnerable in a conference that should have enough improved teams to pick off headliners. And how does the COVID pause impact their conditioning and chemistry?


About the preview: In past years we’ve had a single Google Form where a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick of the entire league schedule game by game. Because the Coronavirus has impacted just about everything, the schedule came out so late we were unable to run through this process. I worked with Matt Harris to get as much of a consensus between our two outcomes of picks (they are still game by game) but in the end these are all MY picks. I’ve tried to include the SEC Media’s predictions and KenPom’s preseason ratings into the preview to set some kind of balance.


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.