As the Vols march onward to the Sweet 16 this Thursday, with dreams of the program’s first Final Four still very much alive, Head Coach Rick Barnes and his staff are not taking their foot off the recruiting pedal. As we’ve discussed back in January, despite currently being full for the 2019-20 season in terms of scholarships, the odds of at least one opening up are very high and the staff should be recruiting as such. Regardless of how they open up – whether it’s from early NBA entry or transfer, or both, the Vols are absolutely still set up to have another strong season. However, laying the groundwork to add at least one more player to the roster should the opportunity present itself is imperative so that the 2019-20 season isn’t just a bridge season between this Sweet 16+ year and what should be a talent-laden 2020-21 roster. There are multiple avenues that Tennessee can go down in order to find new players, and below we again take a look at where the Vols are in each of them
Signed 2019 Recruits Who Could Get Out of LOIs or Unsigned 2019 Recruits
As the season has ended for all but the 16 teams left in the NCAA Tournament and whoever is left in the NIT/CBI tournaments, there has already been turnover in the coaching ranks nationwide, including Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Alabama in the SEC. With that has come unsigned prospects decommitting and those that signed in the early period asking out of their LOIs. While so far that hasn’t been any real news regarding Tennessee reaching out to any of those prospects, former Texas A&M signee Kobe Brown, an athletic 6’7 wing from Huntsville, AL, did hold an offer from the Vols. Whether he or any other 2019 players who are back on the market receive interest from Tennessee remains to be seen, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
There are also always prospects who, for whatever reasons – a late push towards being eligible, being under the radar, or a monster senior – are unsigned as late as March/April. The Vols are looking into a handful of them, including a pair of late-blooming players with length in 6’8 F Oliver Robinson-Nkamhou and 6’9 Wing Isaiah Ihnen.
The Finnish-born Robinson-Nkamhoua has been under the radar not just due to his roots but also because a broken leg caused him to miss his junior season. However, he’s had a big winter for a Maryland high school that Barnes is familiar with from his days at George Mason. At his size he’s got versatility on the offensive end, with the ability to slash to the rim and also shoot from distance. He’s not a traditional PF but more of a new-age player who can excel both inside and out. After receiving offers from the likes of Maryland, Arkansas, Illinois, Pitt, Minnesota, and Wake Forest, he got an offer from the Vols early this month. There isn’t a lot of news in terms of his interest but should there in fact be scholarships available he’ll get a long look.
The same goes for Ihnen, who currently plays in his native Germany. Despite being listed at an inch taller than Robinson-Nkamhoua, Ihnen profiles as more of a wing player and even less of a banger, but like Robinson-Nkamhoua he profiles as a versatile defender with the ability to defend multiple positions. He’s certainly confident in his outside shot, and seems to have eliminated Texas, Oregon, and Arizona State from his initial Top 6 and plans to visit Minnesota, TCU, and Tennessee between April 19th-24th.
When it comes to prospects who could possibly reclassify from the 2020 class to 2019, there has been some Vol-related news. 5-star C Walker Kessler, who has rescheduled two official visits to Tennessee, is no longer considering moving into the 2019 class. How that affects Tennessee’s recruitment remains to be seen, but that’s a story for down the road. At the same time, 5-star Wing Kyree Walker, who many think will reclassify, was just recently contacted by Tennessee. We’ll see if anything transpires between Walker and Tennessee, but that would be a massive development.
Charlotte native and UALR Guard Rayjon Tucker is the first known graduate transfer to have heard from Tennessee. At 6’5, 210, Tucker averaged 20.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game this past season and is a career 41.7% three-point shooter. He’s also heard from Gonzaga, Michigan, Arizona, and NC State among others, so this profiles as likely one of the most high-profile grad transfer recruitments of the spring.
Tennessee most certainly will reach out to multiple other grad transfers as they both become available and also as the Vols have a better sense of their roster going forward.
Which direction the Tennessee decides to take with any available spots will very likely depend on how many are actually open as well as the reason for their availability. There are numerous variables to consider, including but not limited to:
- How soon does Tennessee need the new player to help? If Grant Williams and Jordan Bone both return then Barnes might opt to go all-in for another run at a title and value the experience a grad transfer would bring. Conversely, if both were to leave Tennessee will still have a strong nucleus but could also use experienced talent to ensure a third straight NCAA tournament appearance, essential to not just keep the recruiting momentum going but also to truly stamp Tennessee as a rising elite non-blue blood program
- How long will a new player tie up a scholarship? The Vols already have a commitment from borderline 5-star Corey Walker and are almost certain to sign a Top 10 2020 class with nothing but 4 and 5-star prospects. This will be the year that the staff’s groundwork will perfectly coincide with the program’s rising national profile, and the list of true bluechippers who have Tennessee right at the top of their list is very, very long. So when it comes to potential roster openings the staff will absolutely need to be cognizant of filling a scholarship with a “nice” player in 2019 that could otherwise be used to sign another stud prospect in 2020. That’s of course where grad transfers also bring value, as they’re just one-year rentals. Obviously a guy like Kyree Walker is the kind of stud you don’t turn down, but Tennessee already has two 2019 signees in Davonte Gaines and Drew Pember who are more developmental prospects than plug and play guys, so that should come into play when the staff is evaluating guys like Robinson-Nkamhoua and Ihnen specifically
- Where are the needs? Regardless of whether Grant returns or not, given the relatively little production that Tennessee has gotten from its post depth players this season one would think that Barnes will prioritize a PF/C type player, either from the grad transfer market or a 4-year signee who the staff thinks can help right away. But again, one could also argue that you can never have too many versatile players (read: Wings) and you can never have too many shooters. Part of this assessment will also come from the staff’s projection of how guys like Derrick Walker, John Fulkerson, and DJ Burns are going to develop between the end of this season and the beginning of the next. Because the Vols do have bodies in the post; it’s just that it’s hard to be confident about those guys playing major minutes next season based on what we’ve seen from them (or not see, in Burns’ case) this season
A big theme in this space has been that as Tennessee has begun to win at a high level the last two seasons – a level certainly not since Bruce Pearl was wearing a Big Orange jacket and at very few times before – its recruiting profile has dramatically increased in tandem. And while Coach Barnes has done this winning with (stop me if you’ve heard this before) unheralded recruits, it stands to reason that the program is more likely to continue its winning ways, and hopefully take further steps forward, with more highly ranked recruits. Barnes is recruiting a specific type of player and clearly, explicitly or not, modeling his program after the likes of Michigan and UVA and Villanova: non-blue blood programs who nonetheless recruit blue-chip players, win at an incredibly high rate and contend for championships. From its rabid fanbase to the best facilities and in the country to a coach with an impeccable reputation as both a leader of young men and a developer of talent, there is absolutely every reason to think Barnes can get Tennessee there, and quickly.
But roster development and enhancement never stops, and therefore recruiting never stops. So while we savor the moment Thursday night when the Vols make their 6th Sweet 16 appearance since 2000 and (hopefully) move on, be ready for more on the recruiting front. It will start with any potential defections that create 2019-20 roster spots and continue with what is setting up to be the best class Tennessee basketball has ever signed. Stay tuned…