From Thursday to Sunday there were some relatively significant developments for the Tennessee Basketball program, all of which were positive: 1) News broke that end of the rotation guard Chris Darrington would be transferring, thereby opening another scholarship for Coach Rick Barnes to work with, 2) The esteemed Rob Lewis from Volquest broke the news that 4-star 2018 PG James Akinjo will be taking an official visit to Knoxville the weekend of April 13-14, and 3) 2019 PF DJ Burns took his official visit to Tennessee this weekend. Below we’ll take a more in depth look at each development and how they intertwine with each other
Darrington Leaves the Program, Tennessee Has Opportunity to Improve
On Friday it was announced that guard Chris Darrington would be given his release to transfer from the program. While I’ve been more bullish on Drrington that many due to his performance in last summer’s European trip and even in the non-conference portion of last season’s schedule, it was clear that he faced an uphill battle to have a real impact on next season’s team. He’s a great kid who was dealt a tough hand off the court during the season due to the death of his childhood friend and just never seemed to recover his confidence when his play slipped and his playing time therefore dropped. He was a popular member of the team and I’m sure his teammates will wish him well.
All that said, this does present an opportunity for Barnes that he simply did not have before. Tennessee can use its two scholarship openings to add some combination of a high school player, a grad transfer who’s immediately eligible, and even a transfer who has to sit out a year. They also have positional flexibility that they simply didn’t have with only one opening.
PG James Akinjo (more on him below) is the clear #1 option on the high school front, and what happens with him will likely impact the direction the Vols go with the other spot (or with the remaining two if they don’t land him). However, with the spring AAU circuit starting and the skaeout from coaching changes still happening, there will likely be a handful of new targets that Tennessee takes a look at. An immediate example is Carlos Curry, an MTSU signee who asked out of his LOI last week and was immediately offered by Florida State. Along the Seminoles (where he took an unofficial visit this past fall), Ole Miss (where former MTSU coach Kermit Davis is now the head man), Georgia, Witichia State, and Cincinnati have all been in contact. And so has Tennessee. Why? Because he’s nearly 7’0 and 245 lbs and this weekend at The Opening tournament in Atlanta he was showing range out to 18 feet (projecting to be able to hit 3s as he continues to develop) while using his length to protect the rim. When he signed with MTSU he did so over offers from Oklahoma and WKU and interest from FSU and Clemson among other ACC schools. So while he’s not a no-doubt blue-chipper he’s also not exactly under the radar, and he looks like a legit SEC propsect. We’ll see if anything comes of Tennessee’s interest, but it’s clear that with another scholarship to play with the Vols are going to explore every option out there.
Given the aforementioned hype that the program has and its status as an SEC and National title contender, should the Vols look to go the grad transfer route they are going to be a very attractive option for the best players on the market who are looking to be a part of something special. At the same time, a grad transfer would mean that Tennessee still has four total scholarships for a 2019 class that is already looking good and has a chance to be special. Finally, the Vols could also look to land a transfer who would have to sit out a year but would have multiple years left to play. The most prominent of those so far to be mentioned with Tennessee is Utah State SG McEwen, who Lewis has mentioned as someone to definitely keep an eye on. McEwen, who would be a sit one/play two player, averaged 15.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 32.3 minutes per game as a sophomore at Utah State and is being courted by Iowa State and Creighton among others. The tie here might be that McEwen is originally from Canada and Barnes as well both assistant coaches Rob Lanier and Desmond Oliver have deep connections in Canada basketball having signed three Canadians while at Texas (NBA players Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph as well as Myck Kabongo) and have at UT signed two in Ray Kasongo (who since transferred) and Kyle Alexander.
The bottom line is that as good as Tennessee was last year, and as much development as this roster still has in front of it, Barnes has a real opportunity to increase the overall talent and depth of the 2018-2019 roster while also adding pieces for the future. And he can do so in a variety of ways.
Akinjo Scheduled Official Visit to Knoxville
While Barnes has emphatically stated that his preference for what was then the lone open scholarship for 2018 was another Guard, it has been hard to find a high level high school prospect that the Vols had a shot with. That changed when 4-star California PG James Akinjo scheduled his official visit to Tennessee for this coming weekend.
Akinjo is a 6’0, 170 lb player who burst onto the recruiting scene last summer when he earned MVP honors at the 2017 Peach Jam, averaging 18.8 points, 6.8 assists, and 4.3 rebounds and leading his team to the tournament championship. After taking an official visit to UCONN he signed with the Huskies in the early signing period over offers from Indiana and Virginia among others, but after Coach Nate Ollie was let go he received his release and went back on the open market.
When you watch his tape you see a very hard-nosed kid who is fearless going to the rim and a strong finisher; can get there basically whenever he wants due to his quickness and strong handle; can shoot from the outside and has a quick release; and knows how to get his teammates involved. He also appears to be a willing defender, which is key if he were to sign with the Vols and play for Barnes. He’s also young enough to classify for 2019, which means he’s got plenty of upside physically and mentally with the game. Without a doubt Akinjo would be a huge addition to the team both immediately in 2018 as a 3rd primary ball handler behind Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner and also moving forward as Bone and Turner eventually move on.
Akinjo has received intense interest from the likes of Arizona, Georgetown, Cal, and Wichita State, and was at Georgetown this past weekend on the first of four available official visits. Interestingly, Arizona, who many thought would be a prime contender, picked up a commitment from a different 4-star California PG over the weekend which could very much impact Akinjo’s decision. Tennessee will certainly have a chance to move into the front of this recruitment this weekend.
Vols Brings in 4-Star 2019 PF DJ Burns for Official Visit, Look to Keep 2019 Momentum Going
After having been on campus multiple times over the last 1-2 years, 2019 stud DJ Burns took his official visit over the weekend, bringing his parents with him on the trip. Bringing a 2019 prospect in almost seven months before he can sign is a strong sign that Barnes and Co. feel very strongly about their position and the hope is that while he did not commit while on campus he will do so in the coming days and will shut down his recruitment.
Burns is a rugged, 6’9 260 lb forward whose calling card is his combination of brute strength and an advanced post-up game that comes from great footwork, hands, and soft touch around the rim. His high school coach has incredibly high praise for him, saying, “I think with him he always is developing and always is a great passer. His foot work and feel for the game is unreal. I see this kid as being a pro someday.” From here it looks like his floor would be freshman year Derrick Walker in that he’s physical and incredibly skilled and that his ceiling is very high and will depend on further growing/body shaping/conditioning, etc. He is a great student and also appears to be a high character kid (see him quoting Rudyard Kipling in this tweet) who, like his host over the weekend, Grant Williams, is also an accomplished musician who plays four instruments.
Depending on what they do with Darrington’s scholarship, Tennessee should have at least three to four scholarships to give in the 2019 class, and pairing Burns with longtime commitment Davonte Gaines, who will head to Hargrave for a 5th year, would be an outstanding start for the Vols. This is especially true given that the AAU season is just kicking off and the staff would be able to really narrow in on its targets for the remaining spots. At the same time, the program is about to get a serious uptick in national exposure, as the offseason hype for next season’s team has already begun with the Vols being ranked anywhere from 5th to 8th in a number of preseason rankings. Additionally, Tennessee will participate in next season’s NIT Season Tip-Off in Brooklyn, NY along with Kansas, Louisville, and Marquette, and one can assume that Tennessee will get a marquee matchup in the annual SEC-Big 12 Challenge as well. These will complement what is annually a strong non-conference slate (which this year will at least feature home games against ACC school Georgia Tech and Wake Forest) under Coach Barnes, giving the Vols a myriad of opportunities to showcase the program.
The staff has also already laid the groundwork to fill the class with very highly recruited players. Tennessee hosted 5-star PG Jalen Lecque for the Kentucky game this past season (to go with two coaches’ visits – in November and again in March), and was the first major conference offer for 5-star Wing Josiah James. Additionally, the Vols hosted Guards Marcus Watson (#88), Trey McGowens (#89) and Kira Lewis (#119) along with C Jason Jitobah (#191) for last season’s UNC game. Barnes started the offseason recruiting by by visiting Kira Lewis today (Tennessee’s 3rd visit, this time with the whole staff), and he doubled up with Top 100 guards by visiting Watson as well. This was the second time UT coaches have visited Watson, the first being back in January, and not only was he in Thompson-Boiling Arena for the UNC game but he also visited campus last June Per Lewis, Barnes will be visiting James the following weekend, and it’s safe to say that likely won’t be his only visit. So while more targets will pop up, the Vols have definitely started to hone in on a handful of top level prospects with whom they have already established firm relationships and who have been to campus already. It’s a great spot to be in as Tennessee looks to have an outstanding opportunity to bring in its highest rated class in a long, long time, which is incredibly exciting for Vol fans