After observing a personal 24-hour rule and mourning not only the actual season-ending loss to Loyola but the missed opportunity it represented, it’s time to look at next season’s roster and forecast how the team can get better to make a run at a repeat SEC Championship and a deeper run in the NCAA Tournament. As we’ve discussed here, there is at ton of upside to the team based on the fact that there is a lot of talent on the team and a large majority of it is still very young and has a lot of development ahead of it. There’s also the possibility of adding another player to the roster to take the place of the departing James Daniel III – either a freshman (hopefully the more than likely NBA-bound SG Anfernee Simons) or another grad transfer – that we’ll discuss in more depth soon. Right now let’s talk about the front end of the returning rotation, meaning the (all 5!) starters and the SEC Sixth Man of the Year, and look at the one main are of improvement each of them can make:
The reigning SEC Player of the Year will only be a Junior and as one would expect has a pretty solid all-around game. He’s a brute inside, has nice touch on his midrange jumper (though he misses too many bunnies for my liking), and has great court awareness and does a good job of finding the open man when he’s double teamed. All that said, the one weapon he could add to his arsenal that could make him much more difficult to defend – and at the same time make the team much harder to stop – is a dependable three-point shot. Specifically, the top of the key three (think Yaten Maten and how deadly he was from that spot), either within the halfcourt offense or trailing on a secondary break. The good news is that he already displays good form on his jumpshot and shoots a relatively high percentage from the free throw line. Not only that, but it’s easy to forget that although he only took 25 three-pointers this season – and made a very poor 3 of them for an ugly 12% (frankly I don’t remember him taking even that many) – he was a more than respectable 12/32 his freshman year, good for 37.5%, most of them coming from the top of the key. Point being, he has the capability, and though I respect his willingness to play to his strengths inside and at the same time let the better three point shooters take them if he can add this to his game it would make him virtually unstoppable
One could pretty easily make the case that Schofield was the MVP of this past season’s team, and that was before we saw what happened when he left the Loyola game with his second foul five minutes into the game after his 11 points pushed the Vols to a 15-6 early lead. Schofield was a revelation this season, expanding his game to become both a bully inside as well as a very dependable 3-point shooter. He also added a face-up midrange jumpshot to his arsenal. You know that no one is going to work on his game harder than Admiral, and after his famous 1000-three pointers per day this past offseason led to his performance from behind the line this season one can be assured he’s going to do the same before next season. So what can he add to his game to take it to another level? My take would be that if he can clean up handle to make his slashing game smoother and more effective he would be near impossible to stop at the college level and make himself into a legitimate NBA prospect as a 3 and D slasher who can defend a handful of positions
The subject of a lot of frustration to fans and coaches alike due to his inconsistency, Bone had a really good March overall (ask Arkansas in particular) and showed more than a few glimpses of what he can become with some reachable improvement. Bone is probably one of two guys on the current team (along with Jordan Bowden – see below) who has the physical ability to be an effective one-on-one player that can get to the rim and score when Barnes’s half-court offense doesn’t generate a good look for someone. He’s so quick and fast that there aren’t many college basketball players who can stay in front of him. He also somewhat quietly developed a both a pretty solid three-point shot and midrange pullup jumper. Getting himself to where open three pointers automatic (he’s not going to take contested threes unless it’s the end of the shot clock) and at the same time developing the mentality that he can’t be stopped getting to the rim – and bulking up a bit to be able to finish better through contact – is how Jordan can make tangible improvement. Finally, Bone has the physical ability to become a defensive stopper/difference maker – simply a guy who cannot be driven by and also as someone who causes turnovers regularly. The adage about how guard play determines winners in March is uttered ad nauseum for a reason, and Bone is the guy on the team whose improvement is directly linked to that, which is why I’ve taken some liberties with the number of areas of improvement for him
Bowden brings a lot to the court, including solid defense and excellent rebounding for his position. He was also one of the best three-point shooters in the country throughout the entire out of conference slate; unfortunately, that touch left him for much of the SEC season and even into March. That said, he did make a couple of threes in the NCAA Tournament, including a huge corner three during Tennessee’s furious late-game comeback against Loyola, and I am operating under the assumption that he can get himself to a solid 40%+ shooter from deep with another offseason of work and development. Where his game can take another step is in the halfcourt, tightening up his handle and, maybe importantly, developing an attacking mentality, such that when he catches the ball either on the wing or in the paint off of a curl, he’s looking to get to the rim and finish. He must get stronger and quicker to do that, but the ability is clearly there, and with the threat of the catch and shoot three pointer in the opponent’s scouting report he should be able to easily get a first step on his defender on his way to the basket.
Oh how Kyle was missed on Saturday against Loyola. While his offense can be hit or miss, the rim protection he brings to the table is simply unmatched by the backup big men on the team. Without Alexander at the back of the defense Tennessee’s wings had to help on drives, which led to multiple kick-out three pointers. The good news is that Kyle will be back to anchor the defense once again, likely with more size and explosiveness after another offseason of physical development. And while he’s most often the 5th option on offense, if he can become a consistent shooter that would give Tennessee that many more options on offense. Frankly, if Kyle wants to be an NBA player he would be wise to follow Admiral’s lead and work on his three point shot. Thin 6’11 rim protectors are valuable in the NBA, but guys who fit that profile who are also at least reasonable threats from three are not only where the NBA is headed but really where it is already. It was a long time ago, but don’t forget that Tennessee doesn’t beat Purdue without Alexander’s late-game three pointer that helped send it into overtime. He’s got a nice stroke, which shows up from the free throw stripe, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. I’m not sure that’s where Barnes will want Kyle to go, but imagine an offense that has 5 three-point shooters on the floor with Bone/Bowden as true drive threats…to me that’s enticing and entirely possible
Mr. Big Shot earned that nickname all season long, making game-changing and even game-winning shots throughout the year and into March. Later in the season he also started taking the ball to the rim, mostly in transition with the idea of making a play by wither scoring or getting to the foul line. His aggressiveness and fearlessness are unmatched and are a big part of why this past season was so successful. Turner’s development will come from improving his overall quickness to improve on both ends of the floor, allowing him to drive past defenders in the halfcourt on offense and better stay in front of his man on defense (a real weakness, in my opinion). Additionally, Turner, a natural scorer in a PG body, needs to improve his post passing and overall awareness about when and how to get the ball into guys like Williams and his fellow big men
There is obviously tons of improvement that Tennessee’s 5+1 can make between Saturday’s heartbreaking end to the season and the beginning of what should be the most hyped and anticipated Volunteer basketball season in at least 10 years. That’s what makes the future of the program so bright and Tennessee fans so excited about what Coach Barnes has going on in Knoxville. Next up we’ll take a look at the remainder of the roster and what each of them can do with their games to take the team to the next level.