Here’s the jump now: from a team to a program.
It’s teams, plural, the last two years. Because Tennessee’s DNA in 2018 & 2019 wasn’t made out of freshmen but upperclassmen, we got two cycle-up years. The Vols won an SEC title, spent more than a month at number one, tied for the program’s highest NCAA Tournament seed, made the Sweet 16, and gave four of its players a chance in the NBA. That list is, in order: hadn’t done in ten years, never before, never better, hadn’t in five years, and never before.
To ensure it’s not never again, Tennessee’s challenge is transitioning from “Grant Williams and those guys” to Tennessee Basketball. Living into an expectation they’re paying Rick Barnes to fulfill. The foundation is strong, and the future is bright with Barnes bringing more talent to Knoxville than literally ever before. It’s tempting to call this a bridge year then, but that’s the thing about building a program: the goal doesn’t change year-to-year.
The faces always do; even last year we learned teams are never exactly the same no matter how many of those faces return. In 2018 the Vols made their way up the ladder with unbelievable defense, finishing sixth in KenPom on that end of the floor. We assumed it would be the same story last season, then the Vols unleashed the third-best offense in college basketball, while the defense “slipped” to 42nd.
The assumption leans offense again this season: 19th there, 38th defensively, 20th overall in the KenPom preseason ratings. It may have to if Uros Plavsic (Ü-rosh PLÄV-chich) doesn’t win the appeal behind door number three. Either way, it’ll be both interesting and fun to see how all the pieces fit.
The most intriguing question is, of course, “How good is Josiah James?” That’s the nature of signing the program’s first five-star in six years. But I think the most important question is, “What can Yves Pons give Tennessee at the four?”
Last season Pons saw double-digit minutes through the non-conference portion of the schedule, an intriguing option to cause disruption in the back-court to fill a bench void left by James Daniel. A sign of Barnes’ maturity: making a lineup tweak in the midst of a 19-game winning streak. In the second half of January Pons’ minutes dropped to 10-14 per game, and by February he was backed way down to single digits, taking a pair of DNP’s against Florida and Auburn and playing only 11 minutes in three NCAA Tournament games.
The Vols didn’t need him in that forward spot last year when Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Kyle Alexander were around. But this time – especially if Plavsic is out and Fulkerson has to live at the five – it would make things much simpler and the Vols more dangerous if Pons can be the answer at the four.
The back-court assumption is Bowden, Turner, and James, with the five-star playing point guard when Lamonte isn’t. Jalen Johnson is available to fill in that rotation as well. Fulkerson and Plavsic, if eligible, can give you post minutes. Pons would make for a tight seven-man rotation when you need it, giving the other freshmen a chance to ease into things.
Those other freshmen include Olivier Nkamhoua (OH-liv-ee-AY KAHM-wuh) from Finland and Drew Pember from Bearden, both in that 6’8″-6’9″ range. Nkamhoua played 17 minutes in the exhibition win, Pember 10, while Fulkerson and Pons each played 20. And there’s also 6’11” Zach Kent, a redshirt sophomore who’s appeared in two games in his Tennessee career. If you don’t see Plavsic, odds are you will see him; he logged 14 minutes in the exhibition.
Exhibitions don’t matter much, and I’m not sure the opener tonight will either. UNC-Asheville went 21-13 in 2018, and when Kermit Davis took the Ole Miss job, Nicholas McDevitt left Asheville for Murfreesboro. Year one for Mike Morrell: 4-27 and a 347th-place finish in KenPom, with their only two Division I wins coming against 336th-place USC Upstate. There’s no Ja Morant next week, but you’ll probably have to wait for Murray State to form any kind of actual opinion. But from there, the Vols go to Toronto to face Washington (a convenient 5:00 PM tip-off next Saturday when the football team is on a bye).
The last time we were building a program under Bruce Pearl, the Vols followed multiple departures in iconic seasons in 2008 & 2010 with appearances in the 8/9 game in 2009 & 2011. That’s the same neighborhood this team finds itself in if you value preseason projections. KenPom projects the Vols to go 20-10 (11-7) and finish tied for second in the SEC with Florida, behind Kentucky (projected 14-4). Look for the first edition of the Bracket Matrix here on Tuesday; Joe Lunardi has the Vols as a nine seed in his final preseason projection.
The Vols are paying to play in the top tier now; the results the last two seasons and the recruiting going forward already belong there. On the way, I wouldn’t expect a 19-game winning streak this season. But part of the fun of being this kind of program is the expectation that you’ll be there in March; I’m excited (and curious!) to see what their best basketball looks like between now and then. This team’s role in solidifying the program as more than a couple great years is significant. And part of being that kind of program is no individual team has to live in the past or anxiously await the future. This team can win. I can’t wait to see how they do it.
It starts at 7:00 PM ET tonight on ye olde SEC Network+. Welcome back, basketball.