Rocky Top the Place to be on March 2nd

Knoxville is going to be buzzing on the weekend of March 2nd, as Tennessee will host Kentucky in a rematch of the Cats’ thrashing of the Vols two weeks prior.  Of course, both teams have two games in between now and then, with the Vols going on the road twice in very difficult games against LSU (Saturday) and Ole Miss (Wednesday).  Regardless of the outcome, however, the showdown will have big implications for both the conference as well as nationally in terms of NCAA Tournament seeding, so the CBS national broadcast will be showing a sold out (yet again) and hyped up Thompson Boiling Arena.

Coach Rick Barnes will be using this showcase for his program and will be bringing in a contingent of outright studs from the 2020 class as visitors.  Tennessee basketball has rarely if ever hosted this volume of talent for one weekend, and they’ll look to take full advantage of the opportunity:

C Walker Kessler is a 5-star and 247 Sports #12 player in the 2020 class and the Vols are going head to head with the likes of Duke, UNC, UVA, and Michigan.  As we wrote about here, Kessler fits the mold of what Barnes’s program is all about to a tee, and the fact that he’s taking an official visit is a strong sign of his interest.  The wrinkle in Kessler’s recruitment is the very distinct possibility that he could reclassify into the 2019 class.  Should he choose to do so, that would work to Tennessee’s advantage (though, perhaps not solely) as it’s been stated that UNC for sure does not have a spot for him in 2019 and that the same could be the case for Michigan as well.   Duke – who already has 5-star C Vernon Carey committed, might be reluctant to take him for 2019.  Additionally, while Tennessee does not currently have a 2019 spot open, the Vols appear to be recruiting Kessler with no reservations about making that work.  Kessler, as an official visitor, will no doubt be given the grand tour of everything from the brand spanking new and state of the art basketball facility as well as an in-depth view of Tennessee’s renowned skill development process to everything the University of Tennessee has to offer academically.  Barnes and Assistant Des Oliver were in to see Kessler at Woodward Academy on Wednesday. Expect the Vols to take a massive swing here that weekend.

Wing Keon Ambrose-Hylton – 4-star from Ohio who used to be at Chattanooga’s Hamilton Heights HS, 247 Sports #75 overall player, broke out last weekend at the Basketball Without Borders Global Camp, showing high energy and high level defensive ability. “KAH” is evidently considering the possibility of reclassifying as well, and as an interesting wing prospect he could be someone the Vols turn the heat up on depending on scholarship availability and what Kessler decides in that regard. 

Wing Corey Walker is a 5-star and 247 Sports #23 overall player in the class.  At 6’6 or even 6’7, he’s got the kind of all-around game – able to play inside and outside on both ends of the floor with a shot that projects out to NBA three-point range – that is tailor made for Barnes’s system.  Importantly, he’ll be making his second visit in just 2 weeks, as he just attended the Tennessee-Florida game.  He raved about the visit and quickly set this follow up trip, leading a handful of prominent national analysts to log predictions in favor of Tennessee landing him.  What’s unclear is whether a decision is imminent, and it’s also unclear as of now if this will be another unofficial visit or if Walker will be on his first of two allowed official trips to Tennessee.  Obviously the Vols would be thrilled to land his commitment this early over the likes of local powers UF and FSU along with others like Louisville and Michigan.  This will absolutely be one to watch.

SG Jayden Stone is 4-star originally from Australia and 247 Sports #49 overall player.  He’s a smooth shooter playing his high school basketball in Birmingham with Auburn among others hot on his trail.  Stone has had the Vols in his top group for a while and this will be his first look at Tennessee.

PG Jalen Cone is a 4-star from North Carolina and 247 Sports #121 overall player (interestingly the #60 overall player by Rivals).  He’s very small (listed anywhere from 5’9 to 5’11) but very quick and a pure PG.  He visited Knoxville last September so he’s familiar with the campus, but this will be his first time in TBA.  Depending on what Tennessee’s needs at the position are – that is, does Josiah James come back in 2020, do they otherwise need someone like a grad transfer who can provide immediate help, etc, Cone could be someone they look at strongly.

Although in recent seasons Barnes and his staff have zeroed in on a handful of prospects to target going into the summer before the early signing period, at this point the board is bigger than it’s ever been.  And as noted it contains the kind of talent that befits the kind of program Tennessee Basketball has become.  Along with the group above, Tennessee is firmly in the mix for Wing Keon Johnson (247 Sports #32 overall…Vols lead); Wing Samson Ruhsentzev (247 Sports #60 overall); PF/C PJ Hall (247 Sports #69 overall…Vols could very well lead); SG Matthew Murrell (247 Sports #80 overall); and C Dylan Cardwell (247 Sports #147 overall). 

Pruitt Joining in on the Fun

Tennessee Football will also be taking advantage of the big game atmosphere in TBA and will be bringing in a large number of high-level 2020 (and probably 2021 and even 2022) prospects to campus to take in the spectacle.   While the below list is relatively small, it will certainly grow by quite a bit and already contains four 4-star prospects, three of whom are making return visits.

DL Jacolbe Cowan is a high 4-star from Charlotte making his 4th visit to campus since Pruitt has been coach, along with attending the 2018 opener vs. WVU.  He’s a bgitime player at a major position of need, and while he’s shown no signs of making an early decision he clearly like the Vols a lot.  Getting him back to campus again – especially for a weekend like this – is without a doubt good news

RB/LB Trenton Simpson is another Charlotte native, the 6’3, 220 pound Simpson will be making his 2nd visit in 6 weeks.  The 4-star now has offers from OU/ND/LSU among others and will be facing a similar decision as Quarvaris Crouch in terms of which postion to play, and while the Vols do like him at RB – especially due to his size – his ranking is as a LB which shows his skill level there.  While he may not be on commitment watch, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him pledge to the Vols

ATH Demarcus Beckwith is a 4-star Alabama native with offers from Auburn and Michigan among others.  Beckwith got his first offer from the Vols in mid-January and plays WR and QB for his high school team while also standing out on the hardwood.  He’s a big kid who projects to both sides of the ball with high-level athleticism and would be an interesting piece.

WR Kris Abrams-Draine is a 4-star LSU commitment has been on campus once already but seems intrigued by fellow Mobile native Tee Martin.  Relatively small at 6’0, 160 pounds, he’s got good speed and plays a position that will see Tennessee sign upwards of 4 players, so the outcome of this trip could influence where he is on Tennessee’s board and vice versa.

With a nationally televised Top 10 (at worst) matchup in Thompson-Boiling Arena, both Coaches Rick Barnes and Jeremy Pruitt – who seem to have formed a quick friendship and absolutely recognize the importance of a symbiotic relationship to their respective recruiting efforts – will be using the weekend to showcase the University of Tennessee to the kind of prospects that will continue and even elevate the run that Barnes’s program is on while accelerating the rebuild that Pruitt has well underway.  It should be a weekend that pays big dividends down the road for both programs.

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Is it wrong for me to be more excited about the basketball talent we’re bringing in than the football recruits? Could Tennessee really have multiple five stars on a team? And some 4-stars to boot? I don’t think we’ve ever had more than 1 5-star, ever.