A shout out, first of all, to Josh Heupel and the football team. There was more than one scenario here where we would’ve wanted to start the basketball conversation much sooner. Instead, it’s really a perfect setup: a first glimpse is available while the football team is off tomorrow, if you want it, via an exhibition with Lenoir-Rhyne (3:00 PM, SEC Network+). The real action doesn’t begin until Tuesday, November 9 vs UT-Martin. And the real action waits until the football Vols are through with Kentucky and Georgia, then is there for you on Saturday, November 20 when Tennessee faces Villanova in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. (That game is at 1:00 PM, so you want that South Alabama kickoff to find its way to like 4:00).
Same as football with SP+, we find one of the best ways to put an upcoming season in context is with Ken Pomerory’s data. It’s no guarantee, and sometimes that’s a good thing. Preseason SP+ projections this season had us (rightfully) asking if Heupel’s first team could just be better than three of the last five seasons in the program’s basement. Instead, right now they’re playing at a level similar to 2009, 2012, and 2016, some of our most competitive football of the last 14 years.
But credit KenPom for nailing last year’s team, which was no small feat with Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer new to the mix. In preseason, they rated an even 20.00 (points better than the average team on a neutral floor in 100 possessions). After Baylor cut down the nets, their final rating was…19.95.
That put them in what we labeled the Dangerous Tier among recent Tennessee teams: they can beat anybody, but they’re not consistent enough to earn your full trust. That group is Tier C among UT’s last two decades.
Where does the 2022 team project at the start of the season?
- Tier A – The Current Peak: 2019 (26.24 KenPom)
- Tier B – The Fully Capable: 2014 (23.69), 2018 (22.27), 2008 (22.17), 2022 (21.60 preseason)
- Tier C – The Dangerous: 2021 (19.95), 2006 (19.44), 2010 (18.50), 2007 (18.29)
- Tier D – The Unnecessary Defense of Bruce Pearl: 2009 (16.48)
- Tier E – The Bubble (but probably the NIT)
- Tier F – That’s okay, we used to be a football school (Buzz Peterson’s last two years, Donnie Tyndall, Rick Barnes’ first year)
It might feel a little strange to put them in the tier above the group we labeled as less consistent. Cuonzo Martin’s final team is in Tier B, and there are hundreds of thousands of words spilled in the archives at Rocky Top Talk on all that. But at the end of the season, that group was playing at an extremely high level, and was a bang-bang call away from beating a #2 seed to advance to the Elite Eight.
The challenge with consistency will again be so many new faces on this team. Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer are out (Keon is yet to appear for the Clippers; Springer got two minutes of mop up duty in one game for the Sixers). So too is Yves Pons, yet to appear for the Grizzlies. I think his absence will be most noticeable, simply because there’s no one that can erase what he erased for Tennessee’s defense. The Vols also said farewell to Davonte Gaines and Drew Pember via the transfer portal; Gaines is with Kim English at George Mason, Pember at UNC Asheville.
Meanwhile, in is – gasp! – a true point guard, five-star Kennedy Chandler. He’s the highest-rated recruit of an impressive Rick Barnes era, trailing only Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson on 247’s all-time list. In the CBS list of the 100 best players for the 2022 season, he came in 20th – not in the SEC or among freshmen, but overall.
In is five-star Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, a 6’9″ forward who we’ll be watching closely to see how the Vols utilize him in their lineups. In is Auburn transfer Justin Powell, who hit 44.3% from the arc as a freshman last year before suffering a concussion on January 2 that cost him the rest of the season.
And in is the rest of this freshman class, that by itself would’ve been an impressive haul for Tennessee at any point before the last three years: Jonas Aidoo, Jahmai Mashack, Quentin Diboundje, Zakai Zeigler, and Handje Tamba. It all added up to the #4 recruiting class in the nation.
What will it add up to for this Tennessee team?
We know Josiah Jordan-James, Santiago Vescovi, and Victor Bailey. And we really know John Fulkerson (who will miss tomorrow with a broken thumb but should be available for the opener). If he can return to his 2020 All-SEC form, he’ll be in for quite the finale.
There’s also much we haven’t learned yet about Uros Plavsic, and especially Olivier Nkamhoua, who’s getting a lot of preseason chatter. After that group of four upperclassmen (and, we assume, Kennedy Chandler), minutes are available, and valuable. The always excellent Will Warren has an in-depth preview with lineup projections.
The real answers will have to wait until we see all this newness for our own eyes. But the two biggest questions, as they relate to the difference between this year and last year, are this:
What does the defense look like without Yves Pons (or Kyle Alexander) to take away so many shots? Maybe BHH becomes that guy in a hurry, or Nkamhoua has turned into him. But the Vols have been in the Top 15 nationally in shot-blocking percentage the last three seasons. Pons was the individual player I watched the most on defense out of anyone who’s ever played here. Nothing was totally safe. It’s a huge part of what made this team such a force defensively on so many nights last year. With Barnes, you expect defense to lead the way. So what does that leading look like this season?
And who knocks down threes? The last two seasons, the answer has really been no one reliably: 31.3% from the arc in 2020, 33.1% last season. Jaden Springer shot 43.5% but only took 1.84 per game. Josiah was a woeful 30.8%. Yves Pons was 27.4%. The Vols brought in Powell, but keep an eye on Vescovi as well, especially when he’s on the floor with Chandler. He quietly hit 37.3% last season. If Tennessee can get answers here the way they did in 2018 and 2019 – not even spectacular, just solid – you expect a Barnes defense to more than do its job on the other end.
Last year I think we were more excited about the individual talents coming in than anything else; fair enough, we’re still inexperienced at having multiple five stars and what it does and doesn’t mean in March. This year we’ve got two more five stars, one of them rated even higher…but the conversation on Chandler feels less about his individual talent, and more about what it might do in service to this team. There are certainly questions of rotations and chemistry with so many new pieces. But there’s also an assumption that things will just be easier this time around than last year due to the virus.
The Vols are 13th overall (first in the SEC) in KenPom, 18th in the AP poll, and a five seed in ESPN’s bracketology. But there’s a quiet hope that this group might be able to play at a higher level with greater consistency than last year’s squad. We’ll need to see the defense against live fire to learn what they’ll do without Pons. But if the offense can just find a shooter or two – and Chandler should help create that – they’ll have an opportunity to put themselves in position to advance when it matters most.
Credit Heupel and the football team for having us hold off on this conversation until now. And credit Barnes and the basketball team for allowing us to believe big things are possible every year now.