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SEC Basketball Preview: #2 Tennessee Volunteers

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

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

If we’re not careful, Rick Barnes will field yet another very good but not great team. Last season the analytics sites like KenPom.com and EvanMiya.com loved the Tennessee Volunteers as they finished 6th in KP and 8th in EM. The number said the Vols were a top 10 team. But UT ranked 212th in effective field goal percentage, 231st in 3FG% and were it not for their 6th ranking in Offensive Rebound rate the offense would have dragged them much further down. Still, with the numbers available UT ranked 64th in the Adjusted Offensive rankings. But ranking 1st in defense helped make up some ground.

It was rare when Tennessee gave up more than 0.90 points per possession but when they did they were 3-11. It wasn’t impossible to score on Tennessee, and if you could make your threes you could put pressure on what was a very stodgy offense. So the question for the Volunteers this season is if they can figure out how to score the ball with more efficiency, while keeping the defense as stout as it’s been?


Previous SEC Previews:

Tennessee Preview

#2 Tennessee Volunteers

Last Season: 25 - 11 (11-7 in conference) No. 6 KenPom

My Prediction: 23 - 7 (13-5, 2nd in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 13.7 - 4.3 (1st in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 1st in conference

KenPom Projection: 21-8 (12-6 in conference) No. 8

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

HEAD COACH: Rick Barnes | 8th Season, 175-92

There’s no hyperbole in calling Rick Barnes one of the best coaches in college basketball history. He’s responsible for the best season in Clemson’s history, Texas’s history, and now Tennessee’s history. Maybe you can argue a few points in there but there’s 779 career wins and a .657 win percentage to tell you there’s no point in arguing much. Barnes has been coaching for 36 years and has averaged 21.6 wins a season with 5 different programs. Since taking the job at Texas however Barnes has had just 4 seasons where he’s won less than 20 games, that covers 25 seasons. That’s objectively great.

But for all those 36 years of coaching, Barnes has only been to the Final Four once. When all-time elite coaches are talked about, Barnes is never mentioned and it’s because he’s yet to win the whole thing. The randomness of the NCAA tournament can bit even the best of coaches. People can mention Bill Self’s failures against Bucknell or Northern Iowa but he has a Chip. People can bring up John Calipari’s loss to St. Peters, but he’s got a Chip. So while Barnes isn’t alone in his March failures, they stand out because he’s still missing that last win. So Barnes remains John Chaney or Rick Majors, Lou Henson or Eddie Sutton, Gene Keady or (gulp) Norm Stewart. A great coach with a lot of wins, and a seat in the Hall of Fame. Will he be able to get over that final hump?

Seat Temp: COLD

Tennessee has long been a very good basketball school. While there have been some down years and it isn’t always rosy in Knoxville, Ray Mears had quite a few good teams in the 70s, Don DeVoe had a good run in the early 80s, and Jerry Green went to 4 straight tournaments in the late 90s. But it really wasn’t until Bruce Pearl hit Knoxville did the Vols hit their apex with a couple of 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Barnes has trekked just slightly behind Pearl’s achievements in wins, but ahead on the analytics side.

Tennessee is the third winningest program in Division 1 history without a Final Four trip, behind Alabama and BYU in total school wins. So Tennessee wins a lot, Rick Barnes wins a lot, neither goes very far in the NCAA Tournament. But as I like to say, you give yourself enough chances you’re bound to break through.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Olivier Nkamhoua transfer 36 63.11% 15.31% 14.53% 14.25%
Julian Phillips professional 32 53.29% 10.44% 10.71% 10.58%
Tyreke Key graduation 33 55.64% 10.64% 7.62% 10.64%
Uros Plavsic graduation 34 31.63% 6.60% 6.47% 6.38%
BJ Edwards transfer 14 4.01% 0.67% 0.69% 0.72%
Isaiah Sulack* graduation 3 0.42% 0.12% 0.09% 0.14%
Alec Kegler* graduation 2 0.21% 0.00% -0.05% 0.03%
Kent Gilbert* graduation 6 0.76% 0.00% -0.01% 0.12%
41.81% 43.78% 40.05% 42.86%

If there’s one thing I am sure of is that Rick Barnes doesn’t lose a lot of players he wants to keep to the transfer portal, which is why it was so surprising to see Olivier Nkamhoua enter the portal this past spring. Nkamhoua was the quintessential Barnes player, an unheralded international recruit who turned into a terrific college player. He barely warranted more than a sentence or two entering as a freshman, and even last season many thought he’d play backup minutes behind guys like Uros Plavsic, Jonas Aidoo, or even Julian Phillips as a small ball four. But Nkamhoua stood out as the second leading scorer and made a big impression on Texas and Duke when he dropped 27 points on each one. But Nkamhoua is now in Ann Arbor for his 5th season under Juwan Howard at Michigan.

Julian Phillips didn’t quite have the impact many imagined, but he was a great defender and had enough projection as a pro to get drafted in the 2nd round. Tyreke Key was an underrated player for Barnes last season, and the Indiana State transfer provided some timely scoring bursts through the season... just maybe not often enough. There are an awful lot of players who will not miss the stray elbows and general dirty play from Uros Plavsic. The big Serbian was a good rebounder and defender, but he was limited offensively.

BJ Edwards was a 4-star recruit and a Knoxville native who couldn’t get into a deep and experienced guard rotation. Isaiah Sulack, Alec Kegler, and Kent Gilbert were all long time walk ons.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Santiago Vescovi G-SR CG 33 75.36% 16.25% 56.06% 16.24%
Zakai Zeigler JR PG 30 59.72% 12.60% 51.50% 13.11%
Josiah-Jordan James G-SR WING 24 41.80% 9.38% 49.41% 8.65%
Jonas Aidoo JR POST 35 44.22% 6.99% 54.83% 9.28%
Jahmai Mashack JR WING 36 45.19% 6.67% 48.55% 7.00%
Tobe Awaka SO POST 34 24.22% 4.24% 57.96% 5.51%
Colin Coyne* SR POST 4 0.42% 0.08% 100.00% 0.16%
Freddie Dilione V R-FR CG REDSHIRT
D.J. Jefferson R-FR WING REDSHIRT
58.19% 56.21% 59.95%
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Duke Vs Tennessee Russell Lansford-USA TODAY Sports

Santiago Vescovi | GRAD SENIOR | COMBO GUARD

If it feels like Santiago Vescovi has been around forever it’s partly because he has been. Not many players who have been as consistently good for their entire career and then get a bonus year like Vescovi. His PPG average over four years went 10.7, 8.7, 13.3, 12.5. His three point shooting has sit snugly between 36.0% and 40.3%. After a rocky freshman season with the ball in his hands a lot, he got his turnover rate down from 29.2% to around 15% each of the last two years thanks to a move off the ball. He’s scored in every game he’s played in except for one against Tennessee Tech in December of 2020. He scored 20 points just twice last season and just 7 times in his 114 game career.

Basically with Vescovi, you know what you’re getting. I’m not sure I buy into any preseason hype for Vescovi to be an SEC player of the year level, but I can guarantee that Rick Barnes feels better knowing his backcourt is in safe hands with the Uruguayan combo guard.

It seems unlikely that Tennessee thought they were going to get 5 years of Josiah-Jordan James when they signed the 5-star way back in 2019. James, a lengthy wing who is a steady playmaker but far from a flashy athlete, has a lot in common with Vescovi in that he’s been remarkably consistent for four years. He’s not a great shooter and his percentages from the floor have never been great, but he doesn’t turn the ball over and does enough defensively to be a positive impact to the floor.

Jonas Aidoo improved steadily over his two years in Knoxville, splitting much of the time at the center position with Plavsic. His offense is still rounding into shape but his shooting percentage increased greatly over his freshman season and his rebounding is elite. Jahmai Mashack enjoyed a similar arc as a sophomore, after playing as many as 10 minutes just once as a freshman Mashack averaged 18.1 minutes a game with much of that coming down the stretch of the season.

Although if you’re looking for a breakout candidate, my pick might be Tobe Awaka. The sophomore forward is a load around the rim and he pursues rebounds like few others in the league. He didn’t qualify to be ranked by KenPom.com in the rebounding rate category thanks to his minutes played, but Awaka had the best rate on the team and would have been in the top 5 for Offensive rebounding and the top 50 for defensive rebounding. With Aidoo and Awaka attacking the backboards the Vols should be well equipped to be competitive in their rebounding.

It’s pretty rare for a school to have one redshirt in a year, much less two! But that’s where Tennessee is with both Freddie Dilione and D.J. Jefferson. Dilione was rated the 41st best prospect in the country in the 247sports composite. A 6’4 combo guard with good size and athleticism, Dilione may have a tough path to playing time but his upside is evident. Jefferson was rated a bit lower at 125th in the composite, but he’s a very athletic wing in the similar mold of Mashack.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Zakai Zeigler | JUNIOR | POINT GUARD

A lot of people will point to the injury to Zakai Zeigler last season as an inflection point for the Vols season. Zeigler was injured in the early minutes against Arkansas in late February, meaning he missed about 7 games in total. It’s true Tennessee was just 4-3 in those games without Zeigler, but they were also 3-5 in the 8 games before the injury.

That’s not to diminish the importance of Zeigler; he is important. This was more to underscore the issues with Tennessee’s offense were deeper than whether they had their starting point guard or not. If you look at the on-off splits provided by Hooplens.com Zeigler was a net positive on the offense and just a slight drag on the defense. His ball handing helped prevent turnovers, and he also had one of the best assist rates in the country. As a scorer, Zeigler can use some improvement as his shooting numbers sank with more exposure over his freshman season.

The concern here is any lingering issues with his knee once he’s fully cleared for participation. Tennessee expects to have him available soon but it’s worth noting that Zeigler did not play in their exhibition game against Michigan State. So he may take some time getting up to speed.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
FR Cameron Carr 6'5 173 ★★★★ 56 CG
FR JP Estrella 6'11 233 ★★★★ 61 CF
FR Cade Phillips 6'9 197 ★★★ 144 POST
JR Jordan Gainey 6'3 176 TRANSFER USC Upstate CG
G-SR Dalton Knecht 6'6 204 TRANSFER Northern Colorado WING

Tennessee under Barnes have recruited very well but there’s no clear star in this 3 man class. The highest rated is combo guard Cameron Carr, the son of former NBA and Southern Illinois guard Chris Carr. The younger Carr was rated 56th in the composite and is a long and lanky shooter at this stage of his young career. He also continues what could be a trend of Link Academy (Branson, MO) preps to land in Knoxville after Julian Phillips last year, both following former Link Head coach Rod Clark. Cade Phillips is also from Link by way of Alabama. Phillips is a strong post player right now, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him catch a red shirt.

J.P. Estrella is one of the top players to come out of Maine over the last few decades (not looking at future classes), the top 100 big is a fluid mover with some skill and ability to stretch the floor.

Just two players are on the roster now via the transfer portal. The biggest addition was Northern Colorado transfer Dalton Knecht, a powerhouse wing and offensive threat which could help UT get over their scoring woes. At Northern Colorado he averaged over 20 ppg and shot over 38% from deep and was the leading scorer during Tennessee’s overseas trip this summer. He’s joined by South Carolina Upstate transfer Jordan Gainey, the son of Tennessee assistant Justin Gainey. Jordan was USC Upstate’s best player and was one of the best shooters in Division 1 as a freshman, making 70 of 141 attempts for 49.6% clip. Last season that fell off significantly to just 33.2% on 190 attempts. So if Gainey is more the former he could see some minutes to help space the floor.

Barnes and staff also got a commitment from former Harvard star combo forward Chris Ledlum, but Ledlum opted to re-enter the transfer portal in mid-summer and picked St. John’s instead.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Zakai Zeigler Freddie Dilione V Jordan Gainey
(2) Combo Guard Santiago Vescovi Jahmai Mashack Cameron Carr
(3) Wing Josiah-Jordan James Dalton Knecht D.J. Jefferson
(4) Combo Forward Tobe Awaka JP Estrella
(5) Post Jonas Aidoo Cade Phillips

When Zakai Zeigler is healthy and ready he will start at the point guard spot. I also feel confident that Santiago Vescovi will start at the 2-guard. After that it’s a good question on how Barnes wants to roll. The Vols are pretty deep, and Josiah-Jordan James is physical enough to move down and play the 4 if needed, but it might be hard to keep Dalton Knecht off the floor. Then it comes down to how Barnes wants to handle his front court. If he leans towards playing two post players the obvious choice is Awaka and Aidoo, but neither are big offensive weapons. So playing with more skill on the floor makes a lot of sense, particularly with the way both Aidoo and Awaka rebound. It will also be interesting to see how Jamai Mashack gets deployed, with no Zeigler he was used as a ball handler later in the year. That experience should help him find more minutes this season.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 23-7 | KenPom Projected Record: 21-8

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament Second Round - North Carolina vs Boston College Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home Tennessee Tech 321 W
Nov 10 Away Wisconsin 20 W
Nov 14 Home Wofford 251 W
Nov 20 Neutral Syracuse 105 W
Nov 21 Neutral Purdue / Gonzaga 1 / 5 L
Nov 22 Neutral TBD - -
Nov 29 Away North Caroina 17 L
Dec 5 Home George Mason 164 W
Dec 9 Home Illinois 19 W
Dec 12 Home Georgia Southern 236 W
Dec 16 Neutral NC State 61 W
Dec 21 Home Tarleton State 220 W
Jan 2 Home Norfolk State 270 W
avg 153.09 10-2

Barnes has never been afraid of scheduling tough. Even in his second season when they were still building things up he rang up Gonzaga, Oregon, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech. They played Michigan State in a televised exhibition game already, and then they picked up Wisconsin again, along with North Carolina, Illinois, and NC State, plus Syracuse in the Maui Invitational and then either Gonzaga or Purdue, while Kansas, UCLA and Marquette are on the other side of the bracket.

The SEC has switched from the Big 12 to the ACC for the annual challenge and Tennessee drew the Tar Heels. They also do a good job of scheduling adequate mid major teams at home. Finding teams who aren’t complete duds helps while you’re still racking up a few extra wins.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 6 Home Ole Miss 82 W
Jan 10 Away Mississippi State 27 L
Jan 13 Away Georgia 57 W
Jan 16 Home Florida 39 W
Jan 20 Home Alabama 10 W
Jan 27 Away Vanderbilt 79 W
Jan 30 Home South Carolina 66 W
Feb 3 Away Kentucky 18 L
Feb 7 Home LSU 47 W
Feb 10 Away Texas A&M 24 W
Feb 14 Away Arkansas 14 L
Feb 17 Home Vanderbilt 79 W
Feb 20 Away Missouri 55 L
Feb 24 Home Texas A&M 24 W
Feb 28 Home Auburn 15 W
Mar 2 Away Alabama 10 L
Mar 6 Away South Carolina 66 W
Mar 9 Home Kentucky 18 W
avg 40.56 13-5

Tennesse has as soft of an entry to the conference schedule as you could ask for really. The road game at Mississippi State could be a tough one, but the Vols beat the Bulldogs in Starkville last year by 11 points, and that was with a healthy Tolu Smith. After that road games against Georgia and Vanderbilt are both games Tennessee should win, although the Vols lost at Vandy last year. They don’t have a road game I think they might lose until they play at Kentucky, and that’s been a game Rick Barnes likes to steal. Plus he’ll be running out a bunch of men against John Calipari’s talented freshmen. It’s early enough too where UK might not be fully formed.

Realistically Tennessee could start out 9-0 in conference before they meet up against Texas A&M in College Station. Then again they really went 11-7 last year with a team just as talented, 9-0 could get to 6-3 pretty easily with the wrong performance offensively.

OVERVIEW

There seems to be an expectation for this Vols team to be one of Rick’s best, and with good reason. Analytically last years team was the best in the KenPom era. And it’s not just KenPom, it’s any advanced analytics site. They run the defensive efficiency numbers and it jumps off the page so much that Tennessee gets elevated in the rankings.

But we always need to remember that analytics are a tool, not the answer. Las Vegas has long used possession data to attempt to inform us how a team WILL play. It’s how they figured out the spread. KenPom’s algorithm is his attempt to reconstruct that approach. Trying to figure out how a team will play. Which if course we know is pretty impossible.

Which is how the 6th best team in the country last year lost 11 games, including going 11-7 in conference play. And it comes back to how consistently a team can score. The Vols actually won a game last year with an offensive efficiency of 0.691 points per possession. That’s a mark even the Mississippi State offense didn’t reach last season. Auburn, Georgia, and South Carolina all hit that mark or lower... against Tennessee. And LSU hit the mark as well against Arkansas. That’s not exactly good company.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Part of the issue at least is Barnes and his lack of innovation on offense. He’s far from the only coach, especially in the SEC, who will sacrifice offense for defense. Offensively Barnes has traditionally relied upon the motion offense, fielding multiple big men who can clog up the lane. In this day and age with the value of the three point shot being so important, it’s easier to spread the floor when the paint has fewer bodies looking for post ups and duck ins. The modern 4 man is the key here, and having a four who can shoot and drive the ball makes a big difference. But Barnes has been mostly reluctant to move there, despite him having good options over the years.

Plus, shooting as poorly as Tennessee has the last few years is also holding them back. Two years ago they shot a more respectable 36% from deep and that swung their record in conference to 14-4. Making a few more shots along the way can win important games. For the Vols it’s a win at home over Missouri or Kentucky, or a road win over Vanderbilt. These are just the margins you work with when you’re towards the top, but not necessarily on top. The Vols Adjusted Efficiency Margin was actually better two years ago when they were 9th in KenPom (+25.10) than when they were 6th last year (+23.80). The improvement was almost statistically up to them making more threes.

One thing to keep an eye on this season is with the defense which has inarguably been tough. But some of these numerical categories are a bit flukey when you dig down into it. Like teams shooting 28% on unguarded catch and shoot opportunities, when the Vols were the top team in the country in three point defense that’s worth paying attention to. Per Synergy, Tennessee gave up 238 unguarded jumpers and teams scored 200 points on those shots, making 67 of them. So you’re looking at nearly all of those being threes, and about 6.6 open jumpers per game. The were five wins last season for the Vols which came down to a single possession or overtime where an extra open jumper or two made can swing the outcome. Can they keep up that level of fortune on open jumpers?

Ultimately, there’s very few prognostications picking anything but an excellent year for Tennessee. This preview being one of them picking them 2nd in the SEC. That should be good enough for a protected seed in the NCAA Tournament, and well into the 20s for a win total. The Vols won’t be sweating it on selection Sunday. But if they’re going to take another step and contend for a Final Four, the offense really will need to be better.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

If you combine last years defense with the way the offense played two years ago the Vols should be right there. Win a few extra games down the line, execute a few more sets, get an extra stop and this has every reason to be a team who can reach Tennessee’s first Final Four in school history.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

Well it would take a lot for the Vols to be bad this year, so if you’re pessimistic its likely due to a feeling of this team not having what it takes to break through. The Vols simply have too much talent and experience to not be very good, but the question of whether they can be great or elite is still up for debate. They weren’t last year, and returning the same crew from that team is going to require them being something they haven’t been.


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 teams 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.


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.