As the Vols get set to take on Louisville today in Brooklyn, NY in the NIT Season Tip-Off, in front of them is an opportunity that has rarely been seen by the Tennessee Basketball program. Yes, the Vols have had a few opportunities to make deep NCAA Tournament runs that were thwarted by things like a missed Scotty Hopson free throw or Jerry Green’s utter lack of ability to coach or even Sister Jean of Loyola. But these Vols, coming off last season’s magical SEC Championship and 26-7 record, entered the 2018-19 season with the program’s highest ever pre-season ranking at #5. And they have a coach in Rick Barnes, and stars like Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, who attract the kind of positive media attention a marketing department can only dream of. The momentum this program, which annually ranks in the Top 10 in national attendance – a testament to how much fan support is there, thin or especially thick – is palpable.
So it’s hard for fans to not look ahead a little bit, further even than what could be a Friday night primetime Top 5 matchup between the Vols and #1 Kansas should both the teams take care of business today. To daily discussions about Tennessee Basketball on ESPN and on talk radio and Twitter by national pundits across the country. To another Top 5 matchup with Gonzaga in December and then the SEC gauntlet featuring Top 25-ranked teams like Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State, and LSU.
See, as of last Tuesday Tennessee has now, in back to back classes, signed its first 4-star (2018 DJ Burns) and 5-star (2019 Josiah James) in the Barnes Era. And while this year’s team is a veteran-laden squad with players who’ve played a lot of basketball, it amazingly has only two seniors (with Junior Grant Williams likely to at least test the NBA waters), so there will still be a ton of talent and experience next year and beyond as well. Further, Tennessee has positioned itself incredibly well for 2020 5-star talents Keon Johnson – a Midstate product – and Jaden Springer, who plays for former Vol Bobby Maze’s AAU program that also has future stars in 2021 and beyond.
There is no reason other than history that Tennessee Basketball can’t elbow its way into a new tier along with your standard college basketball elites. Tennessee will never have the historical record that programs like UNC or Kentucky or Kansas have. But there is history there, from Ernie and Bernie to Tony White and many players and coaches in between, before and after. And with a filled-up 20,000 seat arena and facilities as good as or better than any in the country, what Barnes is building now has a foundation that someone outside of Knoxville or not an in-the-know pundit might expect. So when the Vols take the court today against Louisville, and, hopefully Friday against Kansas, they aren’t just playing for NCAA Tournament seeding come March. They’re playing to take another step towards taking this program to a level it’s never seen, a level that for no good reason has not yet been reached. And with Barnes at the helm and guys like Grant and Admiral on the floor, and with guys like Burns and James on the way and prospects like Johnson and Springer teed up, it’s all there for the taking. These Vols just have to take it.