One of the quietest top 10 KenPom teams from last season has to be Tennessee. To make noise during a college basketball season there typically has to be a moment, or series of moments where you can point to a team and say, “Yeah that’s when I knew they were for real.” With the 2021-22 version of the Tennessee Volunteers, they were just boringly good. They won 27 games, 14 SEC games, finished 9th in KenPom, and most people thought they were under-seeded as a 3 seed. That sounds like an elite team, right?
But Rick Barnes team rarely broke out into the elite level until maybe the end of the season. Take, for example, the always questionable AP Poll. the Vols were preseason 18th. They reached as high as 13th in early December, then dipped back before reaching 13th again the last week of the regular season. It wasn’t until the final poll before the NCAA tournament when UT cracked the top 10.
So Barnes built a consistently good team, without being too elite. Their defense was high end but they did struggle to score at times. If the Vols had not gotten clipped by a hot Michigan team in the round of 32, we’re likely talking about this team in a different way. Instead it’s another line item on Barnes’ spotty tournament resume.
Previous SEC Previews
- 4. Auburn Tigers
- 5. Alabama Crimson Tide
- 6. Florida Gators
- 7. LSU Tigers
- 8. Texas A&M Aggies
- 9. Missouri Tigers
- 10. Ole Miss Rebels
- 11. Vanderbilt Commodores
- 12. Georgia Bulldogs
- 13. South Carolina Gamecocks
- 14. Mississippi State Bulldogs
#3 Tennessee Volunteers
Last Season: 27 - 8 (14-4 in conference) No. 9 KenPom
My Prediction:23 - 7 (13-5, 3rd in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 13.3 - 4.7 (4th in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 3rd in conference
KenPom Projection: 23 - 6 (13-5 in conference) No. 4
HEAD COACH: Rick Barnes | 8th Season, 150-81
There’s no disputing Rick Barnes is a good basketball coach. He’s built up and taken four different programs to the NCAA Tournament. He did it at Providence, he did it at Clemson, and Texas, and now Tennessee. KenPom.com has a new feature where the top season in a schools history (since 1997, when KenPom has data going back to) and Barnes has the best season at Clemson, Texas, and Tennessee. He’s won 754 games with a 65.6% win rate, with 26 trips to the NCAA Tournament in 35 years. There’s also four conference championships and two tournament championships, and one Final Four.
Though the knock on Barnes has been that last note, just one Final Four. He’s been able to build great teams, year after year after year, but only one has gotten through to a Final Four. With how today’s success is measured, making the tournament and advancing in the tournament is all that matters. Fan patience for Barnes ran out in Austin, despite making the NCAA Tournament in 16 of 17 seasons and six protected seeds. But it was about the ceiling, and just one protected seed and two 11 seeds and one missed NCAA Tournament in his last five seasons is what caught up with him.
Moving to Knoxville allowed both Barnes and Texas to reset. Barnes has built yet another really good program with the Volunteers, the question now is can he finish it and build a great one.
Seat Temp: COLD
Hire a good coach and let him go. Tennessee was doing well under Bruce Pearl, and solid under Cuonzo Martin, but the fallout of the Donnie Tyndall hire made Rick Barnes do a little work. But since he’s stabilized things the Vols look like a program that should expect to be in the NCAA Tournament on a near annual basis, and contend for top 4 SEC finishes in most years.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
|Victor Bailey Jr||graduation||34||23.48%||3.38%||2.32%||3.82%|
If there’s any hesitancy in this preview about the Vols being elite again this year it’s because Kennedy Chandler isn’t on the roster anymore. Chandler was excellent as a freshman point guard for Rick Barnes last year. He averaged over 13 points, shot 38.3% from outside, created offense with his passing, and held up defensively. But maybe his biggest benefit to the roster was pushing Santiago Vescovi off as a primary ball handler. With Kennedy as the primary ball handler Tennessee was +0.155 points per possession better, with fewer turnovers, better shooting, and overall better defense.
Brandon Huntley-Hatfield came in heralded as a freshman, but played sparingly and increasingly lost out on minutes behind Uros Plavsic and Jonas Aidoo so he took his former 5-star rating and left for Louisville. Justin Powell had a similar story with a less lofty high school rating. Powell played at Auburn and played a lot early on his freshman season, but after sustaining a concussion he opted to enter the transfer portal and landed at Tennessee. But Powell was unable to crack the regular rotation and even had four DNPs in the last nine games, and only played a combined 25 minutes in the other five games. He transferred to Washington State. The last transfer is Quentin Diboundje, a young French guard who left for East Carolina after playing in just 7 games. Victor Bailey, Jr. transferred to play for former Vol Assistant Coach Kim English at George Mason after his playing time fell off a cliff last season. When he’s on, Bailey is an athletic shooting guard who’s capable of shooting the ball better than he did in his time under Barnes.
It’s definitely the end of an era in Knoxville as the Mayor, John Fulkerson is finally out of eligibility after seeing playing time in six different seasons, and after originally committing to the program in November of 2015. Fulkerson was in the same recruiting class as Grant Williams, who played three years at Tennessee before being drafted by the Boston Celtics. Williams is in his 3rd season in Boston. Just for context. After being hurt 10 games into his true freshman season, Fulkerson was awarded a redshirt for the 2016-17 season. he played a little as a Redshirt Freshman, then a little more as a Sophomore, but it was his Junior year when he broke out. He saved a floundering season, and was even named as a preseason SEC Player of the Year by some outlets going into the 2020-21 season, in what would be his Redshirt Senior season. But he got hurt against Florida after an errant elbow and missed the final two games, causing him to come back for a Super Redshirt Senior season. Fulkerson was a leader, and a program guy whose production dipped as Barnes added talent to the roster. His breakout season he averaged 13.7 points, and that had fallen to just 7.5 ppg last year in 9 fewer minutes per game. So he’ll be missed, but at some point you can’t play college sports any more.
THEN, WHO’S BACK?
Santiago Vescovi | SENIOR | COMBO GUARD
Santiago Vescovi was put in a bit of a precarious position when he joined the Volunteers midseason as a freshman. Lamonte Turner had just stepped away from the program to heal his shoulder, after giving it a go for the first 11 games of the season. The Vols tried playing one game without a real point guard and it didn’t go well, they got blown out by Wisconsin. He committed on November 22nd and on January 4th he was playing 34 minutes in a loss to LSU. He played about 80% of the minutes at point guard, turned the ball over on nearly 30% of his possessions.
What we learned early is that Vescovi is a capable ball handler, a terrific shooter, and even a plus facilitator. But he’s not a point guard. As a sophomore his turnover rate was still nearly 23% as he shared some ball handling duties. But last season he turned the handle over to Kennedy Chandler and a funny thing happened. His efficiency shot up, his turnover rate dropped, and we saw what we knew to be the case. Vescovi is a terrific player who was miscast early on. As a secondary creator and spot up shooter, he’s lethal. He shot over 40% from deep, and his ORtg shot up to 117.23. Now it’s no getting around how valuable Santiago Vescovi is to this Tennessee team.
One of the surprises last year was an unrated freshman point guard in Zakai Zeigler. He stepped in very quickly into the rotation, mostly as a backup for Kennedy Chandler, played aggressively within the offense but often looking to pass off rim attacks. Zeigler is a good shooter from distance, but excels in the mid-range. His size makes him difficult to guard, but also a bit of a liability on defense. Zeigler actually had one of the team's worst points per possession differential, which is the team's Offensive and Defensive PPP when Zeigler is on the floor.
Uros Plavsic transferred in from Arizona State after a redshirt year and played very sparingly for two seasons before becoming a starter halfway through last season. Once Barnes had determined he wasn’t going to be able to rely upon Huntley-Hatfield, he turned to Plavsic who solved the problem. His season numbers weren’t all that impressive, but he averaged about 40% of the minutes once Conference play started, and shot over 1.3 ppp at the rim per SynergySports. Jonas Aidoo came in and provided the necessary backup minutes for Plavsic, he’s still developing but he’s big and has arms for days and has displayed high level potential.
I wasn’t sure Olivier Nkamhoua would stick it out, but he’s developed into a nice rotational piece for Rick Barnes. He injured his ankle halfway through the season but was playing about 20 minutes and giving them 8.6 points per game with a solid 106.3 ORtg. Also slow in the development was Jamai Mashack, an athletic wing who came in highly rated as the 62nd best prospect in his class. But he barely registered a blip last season. He only took 14 shots, but he’s a very capable defender who could step into a more primary role this season.
Josiah-Jordan James | SENIOR | COMBO FORWARD
Most of the time when a program signs a 5-star freshman, fans think they’re getting a one and done player. If you’re lucky he sticks around for a second season. But development paths are different for everyone. Josiah-Jordan James has figured out what kind of player he is at the collegiate level, he’s a good defender, a smart decision maker, and a low-usage secondary guard. His size makes him a good defender. With James on the floor, UTs defense is at its best with just a 0.84 defensive points per possession. Offensively though James has never found his groove, other than passing up shots. He doesn’t turn the ball over often, but he also doesn’t take many shots. And even last year turned into more of a catch and shoot guy, which isn’t his strength either, shooting just 0.990 per possession on catch and shoots.
James is valuable as a defender, and a ball mover. He’s not bad offensively, but if he can find a way to be a more consistent shooter the Tennessee offense will take another step forward. Which is just what this team needs.
AND, WHO’S NEW?
|G-SR||Tyreke Key||6'2||211||TRANSFER||Indiana State||PG|
One area where Rick Barnes has not struggled is in recruiting. He’s signed (or has commitments from) 6 5-star recruits and another 9 4-star recruits since taking over the program. And considering he got off to a slow start (Yves Pons was the first 4-star player signed in 2017), you could say he’s on a heater. Adding to his collection this season is 5-star hybrid wing forward Julian Phillips. Phillips has great positional length and can defend multiple positions, and already has NBA level athleticism. Barnes has a tendency to bring along high-level prospects slowly, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Phillips didn’t make an early impact.
Towards the back end of the 4-star range is B.J. Edwards, a point guard with good size, who played right in UTs back yard at Knoxville Catholic. Edwards has the size at 6’3 to play off the ball, but has a sturdy enough build he should play a lot at the point. D.J. Jefferson is a good looking lefty shooting wing prospect with some bounce. And Tobe Awaka is a developmental big with a good body, and the ability to stretch the floor a bit.
Looking for a ball handler who can score the ball to replace Kennedy Chandler, Barnes added Indiana State transfer Tyreke Key. A Tennessee native, Key played four seasons at Indiana State and was coming back for one last year before he was sidelined by shoulder surgery. His last season he played was in 2020-21 and he averaged 17.2 points per game and was an All MVC selection. For his career so far, Key has scored 1650 points and played 3690 minutes, so he brings in some experience and scoring.
|(1) Point Guard||Tyreke Key||Zakai Zeigler||BJ Edwards|
|(2) Combo Guard||Santiago Vescovi||DJ Jefferson|
|(3) Wing||Josiah-Jordan James||Jamai Mashack|
|(4) Combo Forward||Julian Phillips||Olivier Nkamhoua|
|(5) Post||Uros Plavsic||Jonas Aidoo||Tobe Awake|
So full disclosure, Tennessee played Gonzaga in an exhibition game and raised money for it by putting the game online. This allowed us to get a sneak peek into their early lineup. Tennessee looked great offensively against the Zags, and started Zeigler, Vescovi, Phillips, Nkamhoua, and Plavsic. Key was the leading scorer, and I might’ve given more thought to him starting prior to UT’s game against the Zags. Josiah-Jordan James was held out, but if he’s healthy I’d imagine he takes Julian Phillips spot and Phillips still plays a lot.
Barnes played 10, Aidoo filled in for Plavsic and the two played 36 of 40 minutes. Tobe Awaka and BJ Edwards only saw 9 and 2 minutes respectively. And Jamai Mashack played 14 minutes. This is about what I thought the rotation would be.
My Projected Record: 23 - 7 | KenPom Projected Record: 23 - 6
|Nov 7||HOME||Tennessee Tech||340||W|
|Nov 16||HOME||Florida Gulf Coast||257||W|
|Nov 24||Neutral||BYU / USC||44 / 36||W|
|Nov 30||HOME||McNeese State||341||W|
|Dec 4||HOME||Alcorn State||334||W|
|Dec 7||HOME||Eastern Kentucky||259||W|
|Dec 21||HOME||Austin Peay||218||W|
The Vols usually have a well crafted and challenging non-conference schedule and this year is no different. A final nadir in the Colorado series awaits Rick Barnes and his crew early in the season, but the Buffaloes are in a bit of a build back mode after landing a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament two seasons ago. Tad Boyle is one of the better and more consistent coaches in the country, so it should be a good test for Tennessee.
The Battle for Atlantis is usually one of the better tournaments around Thanksgiving, and this season features Tennessee against Butler in round one, and BYU and USC in the other game to reach the Semifinals. On the top half of the bracket features Wisconsin and Dayton, then Kansas and NC State. Obviously this sets up a potential matchup in the Championship game for Tennessee to take on Kansas, if both can make it through unscathed.
Then a return back to Thompson-Bolling Arena for a trio of warmups before a trip to New York to play Maryland and their new coach Kevin Willard. A week later they trek to Arizona to play the Wildcats and Tommy Lloyd in what should be a top 10 matchup. And then to cap off their non-con slate, Chris Beard and the highly rated Texas Longhorns come to Knoxville for another Battle of the Oranges and one of the featured matchups in the Big 12-SEC Challenge.
|Dec 28||Away||Ole Miss|
|Jan 3||Home||Mississippi State|
|Jan 7||Away||South Carolina|
|Jan 17||Away||Mississippi State|
|Feb 21||Away||Texas A&M|
|Feb 25||Home||South Carolina|
After a pretty tough non-con slate, the Vols get a soft entry into Conference play with four games against teams not projected into the NCAA Tournament. In fact, after playing Kentucky at home on January 14th, the Vols get another break for a few games. Totaled up, it’s possible Tennessee is favored in their first 13 games in league play and could go from December 17th all the way to February 18th before they’re not the favorite. Each year UT gets Kentucky as their permanent rival, and also Vandy and South Carolina. The Commodores and Gamecocks have gone through some tougher times in recent seasons so these have helped Barnes and his crew stack up some needed wins. And Barnes also has a winning record against John Calipari since 2015 (10-7).
There are some pitfalls though, and the finish of hosting Arkansas at home at a time when the Hogs always seem to be playing well is tough. Then going on the road to play at Auburn. Plus back-to-back road games at Texas A&M and Kentucky, there’s a chance a hot start gets nullified. But that’s the risk of an unbalanced schedule.
When it comes to SEC Basketball over the last decade or so, few things have felt certain. Kentucky would be good. But now that Rick Barnes is roaming the sidelines in Knoxville, it certainly feels like you can expect Tennessee to be good as well. He’s got the program operating on all cylinders now with his recruiting following the winning, and helping the recruiting.
But what has been missing is the post-season success.
By no means should anyone be putting Rick Barnes on the hot seat, or even a remotely warm seat. But Tennessee fans are likely asking when Barnes is going to break through with the program. Keeping in mind the Vols, for as good as they’ve been for much of their history have never been to a Final Four. They’ve played in 24 NCAA Tournaments and have 7 Sweet 16s and an Elite 8. Maybe this feels exasperated because of how last year's team seemed to fizzle out in the Round of 32. The Vols lost a close game where they shot 2-of-18 from outside the arc, and for a team who shot 36% on the season that has to be a tough pill to swallow.
When you evaluate the top level teams, the question is less “Do they have a pro?” and more “How many pros do they have?” That question feels more obvious when you talk about the rest of the top half of the league, but with UT the answer is more complicated. With Barnes, unless you’re a Kevin Durant or a T.J. Ford or even a Kennedy Chandler, you rarely get the keys right away. So, while Julian Phillips is likely the best pro prospect on the roster, it will be surprising if he’s amongst the top 5 in minutes played.
With a baseline of Vescovi and James, plus Plavsic and Aidoo around the rim, plus Zeigler running the point... this team will be good. Seeing preseason rankings which have the Vols in the top 10 and in the case of KenPom even the top 5 seems like a bit of a stretch. There’s enough with their good players, and with how they can defend, Tennessee should at least be a top 25 team most of the year.
The concern is replacing Chandler with Zeigler and expecting the same results, or better, doesn’t sit right. Maybe Key becomes more of a fixture, and perhaps Phillips blossoms over the second half. There is enough with how they defend, and offensive talent that Tennessee could press for the top spot in the Conference.
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
Rick Barnes has this program rolling, they return most of the key pieces for a team which finished top 10 in KenPom last year and have a year where about half the league looks like they’re hitting reset. With the continuity, the defense, there’s no reason this isn’t the team to make a Final Four run.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
Losing Kennedy Chandler is a bigger loss than most expect, which would be why this isn’t the team many are projecting so high in early season rankings. It’s a team missing a star, and in order to take the next step they need a star. It’s a team full of good players, making them a good team, but they don’t have a guy who can take over.
About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for 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 team's potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in “the Masses” picks. 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.
* - 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.