The answer is, in some way, “Ask me after I’ve seen the freshmen.” Fair enough, and we’ll get our chances in just ten days. The Vols host Charlotte (16-13, 10-8 Conference USA last year) next Wednesday, then run it back with VCU on Friday. After that (still unofficially), it’s #1 Gonzaga in Indianapolis on Wednesday, December 2. So yeah, check back with us.
But in the preseason, we can still place our bets. Coming in at 12th in the initial AP poll gives this team the seventh-highest start in program history, with six others tightly packed between sixth and tenth. Via the media guide: considering the Vols have only been ranked in the preseason poll 15 times in their history, any number next to the logo is a good sign.
The projections we like most, of course, come via Ken Pomeroy. Something we’ve reference recently in football is a piece we did back in May, comparing Tennessee’s last 15 years in SP+ data and grouping those seasons into tiers. It helped frame the Vols’ 2020 preseason rating in context with the 2009, 2012, and 2016 seasons. As we called at at the time, the “We have a chance to win this game,” tier.
Obviously, preseason projections don’t mean the whole world. But it’s a helpful frame of reference coming into a year, most especially as a check on the ceiling and the floor.
Here’s the last 20 years of Tennessee Basketball in KenPom, from Buzz Peterson to Rick Barnes, placed in tiers. Where does this year’s team fall?
The Current Peak
- 2019: 26.24 (points better than the average team in 100 possessions)
No surprise, KenPom loved the Vols two years ago. The Grant Williams/Admiral Schofield squad that hit number one for a month and almost earned a one seed in the NCAA Tournament is the program’s clear high water mark in the last 20 years, and possibly ever. 2019 was also a year full of incredible college basketball teams: the Vols finished 10th in KenPom that season, but their 26.24 mark would’ve made them the fourth best team in basketball last year if/when the NCAA Tournament began.
The Fully Capable
- 2014: 23.69
- 2018: 22.27
- 2008: 22.17
Before 2019, Tennessee’s KenPom throne was actually owned by Cuonzo Martin’s last team, which took a 21-12 record to Dayton and almost made the Elite Eight. The 2018 Vols, in hindsight, may have had the clearest path to the Final Four before getting Sister Jeaned in round two. And the 2008 Vols ran into the opposite problem in a nightmare matchup with Louisville in the Sweet 16. Still, all three of these squads had real opportunities to make what would’ve been the program’s first Final Four.
- 2021: 20.00 (preseason)
- 2006: 19.44
- 2010: 18.50
- 2007: 18.29
We find the 2021 Vols here, underdogs only to those four Vol squads ahead of them, and still in excellent company. Bruce Pearl’s first team in 2006 earned a two seed, and his second was one possession from the Elite Eight against Greg Oden. His fourth team got there through Ohio State and was one possession from the Final Four as a six seed. These three Pearl teams may not have had the night-in, night-out ceiling of the ones ahead of them on this list, but felt like they could beat anyone and almost did. The 2010 team in particular was playing some of the most complete basketball in its home stretch that any Tennessee team has played. If the freshmen merely meet expectations, you’re going to like keeping this kind of company in 2021.
The Unnecessary Defense of Bruce Pearl
- 2009: 16.48
In years ten thousand times simpler than now, it was one of our favorite blog debates: “Was the 2009 season a success?” A year after hitting number one, the Vols rebuilt or reloaded, depending on who you ask, still won the SEC East, and finished 21-13, losing at the buzzer in an 8/9 game to Oklahoma State. They shot too many threes. But they parlayed that season into an Elite Eight run the following year. To this day, it’s hard to group 2009 with any other Vol season, a unique year and bridge between two of our favorites.
The Bubble (but probably the NIT)
- 2002: 12.67
- 2017: 12.62
- 2011: 12.41
- 2012: 11.38
- 2003: 10.99
- 2020: 10.80
- 2013: 10.47
Once Lamonte Turner went down, last year’s team found itself in varying degrees of this tier: Buzz Peterson’s first two teams, Bruce Pearl’s last team, Cuonzo Martin’s first two teams, and Rick Barnes’ second team. All of them chased the bubble, but only Pearl’s last squad made it, and was promptly routed by Michigan in an 8/9 game in 2011. We know this kind of season well from Cuonzo’s tenure, and re-lived it briefly in 2017 before the Vols couldn’t finish off a mid-to-late-January hot streak.
That’s okay, we’re a football school
- 2005: 8.89
- 2016: 7.31
- 2004: 7.30
- 2015: 7.24
Nothing to see here these days: Buzz Peterson’s last two seasons, and the transition years between Donnie Tyndall and Rick Barnes.
Expectations are high for 2021, and rightfully so. Credit the 2018-19 teams for laying not just a foundation, but building on it higher than any Tennessee team has gone before. Whether this team can reach those heights or not in the regular season, everything is about getting to your best basketball in March, and giving yourself the best possible path through the bracket. Tennessee enters the season with plenty of promise, and it should be incredibly exciting to see just how high they can climb from there.