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SEC Basketball Preview: Tennessee might have the missing piece which held them back a year ago

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Previewing the No. 4 team in the SEC, the Tennessee Volunteers.

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

Sometimes living up to the hype is a difficult thing to do. Last year, preseason hype engulfed the Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols were coming off a so-so season in 2019-20, where they finished 68th in KenPom and 9-9 in league play. But they returned almost everyone, and were adding two 5-star freshmen to the roster. Surely that is a recipe for greatness, right?

But Tennessee was a disappointment last year. They vaulted into the top 10 early in the season, mostly on the back of their defense, but the offense bogged down, and multiple players just had disappointing seasons. They still finished with a respectable 18-9 record, but were bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a 5 seed. Summarily ending the up and down season. Starting 10-1 is great, finishing 8-8 isn’t. And now we’re looking at much of the same recipe going into this year. Can Rick Barnes change their luck?


Previous SEC Previews

Tennessee Preview

#4 Tennessee Volunteers

Last Season: 18-9 (10-7 in conference) No. 28 KenPom

My Prediction: 21-10 (12-6, 4th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 12.7 - 5.3 (4th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 4th in conference

KenPom Projection: 21 - 9 (12-6 in conference) No. 13

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Florida vs Tennessee Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Rick Barnes | Seventh Season, 123-73

It’s nearly impossible to disparage the level of success Rick Barnes has had over his elongated career. Rick Barnes first coached on the sidelines as the head coach in November of 1987, the same week The Running Man was the number one movie at the box office and “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffani was the number one single in the land. So it’s been a while.

Barnes spent one season at George Mason, then six at Providence, four at Clemson, 17 at Texas, and now the last six seasons at Tennessee. That’s 34 years as a head coach with four conference championships and 25 NCAA tournament appearances. It’s what one might call a storied career.

11 of those NCAA appearances were a 5 seed or higher, and just one ended up with a Final Four appearance. Overall, Barnes’ NCAA record is just 24-25. At Tennessee, he’s 3-3. The NCAA is a crapshoot which Barnes hasn’t quite figured out. He’s been a really good coach, but in how many seasons would you consider Barnes an elite coach? He left Texas because he was good, and rarely great. He’s shown he can land elite recruits, and can win a lot of games. This year he’s again assembled a roster full of talent and one capable of winning the league outright.

Seat Temp: COLD

tennessee 2021 preview 10 year look

Barnes has also stabilized a program which has seen some really high highs in recent seasons, and also experienced the lows of Bruce Pearl being handed a show cause, and then Donny Tyndall being handed the same. Through all of that, Tennessee has been in the NCAA Tournament 75% of the time over the last 15 years with 4 protected seeds. Taking all that into account, UT has largely been the 3rd best SEC program over that span, behind only Kentucky and Florida.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Jaden Springer professional 25 60.37% 16.13% 15.50% 15.91%
Keon Johnson professional 27 63.89% 15.77% 12.80% 17.32%
Yves Pons graduation 26 68.70% 11.70% 13.13% 10.73%
EJ Anosike transfer 22 17.50% 1.96% 2.26% 2.64%
Davonte Gaines transfer 19 6.48% 0.72% 0.83% 1.07%
Drew Pember transfer 10 2.59% 0.10% -0.02% 0.51%
43.91% 46.38% 44.50% 48.18%

For all the hype of the freshmen, the guy who might be missed the most is Yves Pons. A masterful defensive player, Pons was good for at least one or two “Wow” plays per game. With Pons on the floor Tennessee’s defense was barely penetrable, giving up just 0.86 points per possession. And while Pons was never going to be an elite offensive player, he was so good defensively it made his mediocre offense acceptable.

Sometimes when you recruit high level freshmen, they leave before providing a huge impact. Keon Johnson was a show-stopping athlete for Rick Barnes, but while he flashed his potential, quite frequently he never made the consistent impact many thought he would. Johnson needed a lot of shots to get his points, and in the last 10 games he had an offensive rating over 100 just twice while finishing the season shooting under 30% from 3FG, and under 50% from 2FG. The guy who was more of an impact was Jaden Springer, who actually had the highest PPP differential on the team at over 16 points per 100 possessions. Still, both were taken in the 1st round of the NBA Draft.

EJ Anosike joined as a graduate transfer and was quickly relegated to a reserve role, while both Davonte Gaines and Drew Pember combined to play less than 100 minutes in their sophomore seasons.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Victor Bailey Jr SR CG 27 61.57% 15.15% 54.60% 12.00%
John Fulkerson SR+ CF 25 60.93% 12.21% 58.20% 13.54%
Santiago Vescovi JR CG 27 72.87% 12.11% 57.40% 12.05%
Josiah-Jordan James JR WING 25 62.41% 10.36% 50.80% 13.76%
Olivier Nkamhoua JR POST 24 15.56% 2.89% 56.00% 2.88%
Uros Plavsic JR POST 16 6.57% 0.93% 46.40% 1.26%
Brock Jancek SR POST 1 0.28% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
Kent Gilbert SO WING 1 0.28% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
56.09% 53.65% 55.49%
Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

John Fulkerson | SUPER SENIOR | COMBO FORWARD

This picture is of Fulkerson’s senior night. Keep in mind, he was a Redshirt Senior, so this was after his 5th season on campus, and I can imagine finishing the season on the bench thanks to an errant elbow from Florida’s Omar Payne isn’t how Fulkerson imagined his college career ending. So when COVID offered him the opportunity to do it all over again, he took the chance. Having grown up a Tennessee fan, it made sense to take advantage of the one season mulligan the NCAA granted basically everyone last year. So that’s where we are— in season 6 of Fulkerson in Knoxville, which is more than we got of Breaking Bad. From a basketball perspective, Fulkerson had a bit of a breakout offensively in his junior season, but for most of his career he’s been a role guy. He’s an efficient scorer when playing off the ball, but funneling possessions into his hands can be hit and miss. This year Fulkerson will be surrounded by a lot of talent, and he shouldn’t be looked at to carry a heavy scoring load, but be a leader on a young team.

With Fulkerson, Tennessee returns four players who played in 60% of the available minutes or more, led in that category by Santiago Vescovi. Vescovi stepped in as a freshman and had a very impactful year for a team in search of quality guard play after losing Lamonte Turner for the year before conference play started. But for two years Vescovi has largely been playing out of position as a point guard. He’s improved his ball security, but his scoring dropped off along with his usage. However, he improved his shooting and efficiency.

Oregon transfer Victor Bailey, Jr stepped in as a part-time starter but found himself one of the leading shot takers on the floor. Bailey was the third leading scorer, rarely turned the ball over, but wasn’t a great shot creator. He often just found himself in position where he was needed to take a shot as the Vols struggled to generate good offensive looks.

Both Uros Plavsic and Olivier Nkamhoua played as reserve posts and did not see consistent minutes. Plavsic played 27 minutes in the final two games, but otherwise didn’t see the floor in 10 games and didn’t crack 6 minutes played in the other 14 games. He’s got good size and moves pretty well for his position, but likely won’t factor much into the rotation. Nkamhoua was a DNP in just 3 games, and saw double digit minutes in six games. He’s a solidly athletic forward who will likely be a backup again this year.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oregon State at Tennessee Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Josiah-Jordan James | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD

We’re all waiting for Josiah-Jordan James to break out. The former 5-star prospect was a skilled and tantalizing combo guard with elite size, strength and body control. And while James went from a pretty rocky freshman season to a solid sophomore year, he only improved his scoring output from 7.4 ppg to 8.0 ppg. His jump in efficiency from his freshman year came almost completely on the back of his turnover rate, which fell from 27.7% to 14.9%. But where James hasn’t jumped out is simply being the best player on the floor for Tennessee for anything more than a stretch here and there.

If James can find the gear where he’s that player then the cap on the potential for UT this year comes completely off.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Kennedy Chandler 6'0 175 ★★★★★ 8 PG
Fr Brandon Huntley-Hatfield 6'10 235 ★★★★★ 25 POST
Fr Jonas Aidoo 6'11 230 ★★★★ 39 POST
Fr Jahmal Mashack 6'4 190 ★★★★ 61 WING
Fr Quentin Diboundje 6'5 205 ★★★ 155 WING
Fr Zakai Zeigler 5'9 160 ★★★ 231 PG
Fr Handje Tamba 6'11 215 ★★★ 291 POST

A big reason why there’s excitement around this Tennessee team is the amount of young and exciting newcomers on the 4th ranked recruiting class, led by the top overall point guard in the 2021 class, Kennedy Chandler. Chandler is a slender playmaker who just has an innate feel for the game and seems to win everywhere he goes. He’s joined in the freshman class by some exciting players like Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and Jonas Aidoo in the front court, as well as Jahmal Mashack on the wing.

Hutley-Hatfield has a college-ready body and a respectable skill set which should get him plenty of minutes at the combo forward spot. He can stretch the floor, but with his size and body he’s still most comfortable around the rim. Aidoo was originally committed to Marquette but switched to Tennessee when Steve Wojciechowski was fired. Aidoo is a little more of a traditional five right now, but he moves really well and has long arms and good shoulders, and a decent enough shooting touch. He should be an intriguing prospect to watch.

A California native, Jahmai Mashack treks east and brings with him athleticism and elite level defending. Barnes also added three developmental prospects in Quentin Diboundje, a 6’6 wing originally from France who’s following his mentor Yves Pons after spending some time at Monteverde Academy. He’s a high level shooter who could see some minutes early on. Also on board is a stocky and fast 3-star point guard Zakai Zeigler, but he’ll have his work cut out for him playing behind Chandler. Last in the class is Handje Tamba, a developing 6’11 big man.

I can’t leave off Auburn transfer Justin Powell, a combo guard who was playing really well for the Tigers before a concussion knocked him out of playing, no pun intended. Powell was a lightly recruited player out of northern Kentucky but showed skill and presence in his early minutes at Auburn so he should be in the rotation in Knoxville.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Kennedy Chandler Victor Bailey Jr Zakai Zeigler
(2) Combo Guard Santiago Vescovi Justin Powell
(3) Wing Josiah-Jordan James Jahmal Mashack Quentin Diboundje
(4) Combo Forward John Fulkerson Olivier Nkamhoua Handje Tamba
(5) Post Brandon Huntley-Hatfield Uros Plavsic Jonas Aidoo

This is a really tough depth chart to predict, but as with others you start with previous starters. Fulkerson has started virtually every game the last two years, as has Santiago Vescovi. Josiah-Jordan James started nearly every game as a freshman, and began last season as a starter before being replaced as Barnes started hunting for offensive answers. Victor Bailey, Jr seemed to play well off the bench last year, and that would allow Kennedy Chandler to be the starting point guard, which would move Vescovi off the ball— something the Vols have needed to do for two years. If Justin Powell becomes a threat, it’s likely to move James to the wing, and a combo of Chandler-Powell-Vescovi would give Barnes a trio of ball handlers and provide some good ball security. The post position is going to be the race to watch. Huntfield-Hatfield would appear an early leader if only for recruiting rankings, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Plavsic or Aidoo get early starts.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 21-10 | KenPom Projected Record: 21-9

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Villanova at Baylor Doug McSchooler-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 9 Home Tennessee Martin 348 W
Nov 14 Home East Tennessee St 142 W
Nov 20 Neutral Villanova 9 L
Nov 21 Neutral UNC/Purdue 40 / 6 L
Nov 26 Home Tennessee Tech 296 W
Nov 30 Home Presbyterian 266 W
Dec 4 Away Colorado 35 W
Dec 7 Neutral Texas Tech 12 W
Dec 11 Home UNC-Greensboro 163 W
Dec 14 Home USC-Upstate 336 W
Dec 18 Neutal Memphis 16 L
Dec 22 Home Arizona 47 W
Jan 29 Away Texas 14 L
avg 182.67 9-4

Two tune ups and then we’re diving right in! Tennessee wastes no time getting to the meat of their non-conference schedule with a matchup against Villanova in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Also in the four team tournament are North Carolina and Purdue. Either way the first game goes, there’s a really tough matchup awaiting them in the second game. Then comes another couple games which should be layups, and then a difficult road game against a good Colorado team and a neutral court matchup in the Jimmy V Classic against Texas Tech. Then Memphis, Arizona, and Texas in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. That’s seven games against Power Conference teams and all of them in the top 50.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 29 Away Alabama 19 L
Jan 5 Home Ole Miss 57 W
Jan 8 Away LSU 43 L
Jan 11 Home South Carolina 86 W
Jan 15 Away Kentucky 17 L
Jan 18 Away Vanderbilt 79 W
Jan 22 Home LSU 43 W
Jan 26 Home Florida 25 W
Feb 1 Home Texas A&M 78 W
Feb 5 Away South Carolina 86 L
Feb 9 Away Mississippi St 65 L
Feb 12 Home Vanderbilt 79 W
Feb 15 Home Kentucky 17 W
Feb 19 Away Arkansas 15 L
Feb 22 Away Missouri 96 W
Feb 26 Home Auburn 28 W
Mar 1 Away Georgia 159 W
Mar 5 Home Arkansas 15 W
avg 55.94 12-6

Getting Vanderbilt, South Carolina and LSU in the home-and-homes should make up for also having to go up against Kentucky and Arkansas. The Vols have won eight straight against Vanderbilt, six of their last seven against South Carolina, but have only beaten LSU once under Will Wade, so here’s a good opportunity for revenge. The Kentucky and Arkansas matchups are a bit trickier. Under Barnes, Tennessee has beaten Kentucky at least once each season, and actually have a winning record (8-6). It’s difficult to open conference play on the road, and even tougher against an Alabama team who many think will contend for the league title again. Also consider four of their first six games are on the road, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see UT hit a few early bumps before hitting cruise control when five of their next seven are at home.

OVERVIEW

Is Tennessee the second best program in the SEC?

No matter the case any school will have a long ways to go before catching Kentucky. They have the third best winning percentage in conference history, tied for second most NCAA appearances, but no Final Fours. Eight other SEC Teams have had the taste of a Final Four.

Is this Tennessee squad the one to break the streak? They certainly have all the elements you want. They’re a preseason top 15 team in KenPom, they return a bunch of production, and have an elite recruiting class coming in. The featured player of the incoming freshmen is an elite floor leader with a winning pedigree. They have several elite shooters, athleticism, an elite defense. They have all the makings of a Final Four team, or at least a team who could project as one.

tennessee synergy 2020

If you play back that script, it could have read the same last year. The team brings back a bunch of production, imports high level recruits, and falls well short of expectations. But if the script is going to be different this year, it’s largely going to come down to the one thing which was really missing from last year’s team: a point guard.

Try as he might, Santiago Vescovi is not a point guard. He’s a skilled shooter and a crafty playmaker, but he’s prone to mistakes with the ball. One of the struggles last year for Tennessee was generating offense. They were the 5th rated defense per KenPom, but offense was often a problem.

In games where they scored more than a point per possession, UT was 15-1. If it was less than that, they were 3-8. Another indicator was their 2-point shooting, where the Vols only lost 2 games when they hit 46% of better from inside the arc. Basically, the offense failed pretty often, and when it did, Tennessee lost. So why is this season going to be different?

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

It seems like a big ask for a freshman to step in, run the offense, and fix many of the issues which plagued a talented UT squad a year ago. But that’s exactly what is being asked of Kennedy Chandler. Chandler’s impact could be along the same lines as what Shariffe Cooper had at Auburn, or Collin Sexton had at Alabama, or even Tyus Jones at Duke several years ago. He doesn’t need to be the scorer Sexton was, because as a facilitator there are far more weapons on this Tennessee roster than Sexton had at Alabama. But why I like the Jones comparison is because Jones was a major fixture in the offense without taking over the possessions Cooper and Sexton did. Jones’ usage hovered around 20%, and his efficiency was off the charts. He played virtually all the minutes at point, didn’t turn the ball over, had an assist rate near 30%, and shot the ball well from outside.

That’s exactly what Barnes needs from his point guard on this team. Vescovi has proven he can spread the floor and make open shots, and so can James, Powell, and Bailey. There’s defensive prowess and athleticism, so all that is missing is a guard who can handle the ball, not turn it over, and generate looks for his teammates.

If James turns into the wing scorer the team needs (or someone does), and they’re able to pry some high level post-play, even if it’s through a committee approach, it lessens the need for Chandler to be so special. Putting those things together should make Tennessee very good. But like, 12-6 in league play, and 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA good. Not elite.

Asking Chandler to turn into Tyus Jones is a lot. Jones led Duke to a 35-4 record and a National Title in 2015. He also was drafted in the 1st round of the NBA Draft after one season. While I do think Chandler is capable, it’s still a lot to digest. But for Tennessee to be elite this year, that’s what he needs to do.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

Even during a rocky year on Rocky Top, the Vols were still able to pull off a 5 seed. And that was without a point guard and an offense which was inconsistent. Now with an elite point guard in tow and revived and athletic big men, the offense gets a shot in the arm. And you know a Rick Barnes team will always been tough defensively. Tennessee now has all the right pieces to make a run.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

Barnes routinely has teams who have won a lot but rarely won big. He’s often fielded good but not great teams, and this team has the makings of that again. A freshman point guard can’t patch over all the offensive problems from a year ago as long as Barnes continues to run a less than modern scheme.


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.