The national media continues to marvel at what Coach Rick Barnes has built at Tennessee and never fails to mention that it’s been done without highly ranked recruits. However, as Vol fans know that has started to change, first with the signing of current redshirt(ing) freshman big man DJ Burns, a 4-star PF who reclassified from the 2019 class and signed this past year. Following up on that, the Vols inked 5-star Josiah James as the headliner in the 2019 class. Importantly, while Barnes is absolutely elevating the level of prospect he’s chasing, he’s not deviating from the type of prospect that he wants: high character kids who fit not only the system Barnes wants to play but also the culture that Barnes and his staff have built.
And while Coach Rick Barnes looks to be trying to build the Tennessee basketball program in the mold of a UVA or Michigan (or even Duke before Coach K went to the 1-and-done dark side), he’s at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to the relative academic perception of UT vs. those schools. That’s just a fact, and though it can be countered with advantages Tennessee has over those programs in terms of facilities (also here) and fan support, for particular recruits – again, the kind of elite recruits that those types of programs are chasing and for whom Barnes now has Tennessee in the mix – the academic reputation can be a differentiator when choosing a school.
That said, there are some very recent high profile examples of Volunteer student athletes – Josh Dobbs and Grant Williams specifically – who were very much focused on academics coming out of high school and have excelled at an incredibly high level – and in a very high profile way – while also becoming Volunteer legends in their respective sports. As it relates to the basketball program, Williams is on his way to becoming second to only NBA Hall of Famer Bernard King in terms of Tennessee basketball all-time greats while at the same time constantly being featured for his off the field prowess every time Tennessee plays on national TV (which is a lot these days). Like Dobbs before him, Williams is a shining example of what the University of Tennessee can do for a special student athlete who excels both on and off the court.
No doubt James heard that same pitch from Barnes and Tennessee when they were recruiting the 5-star combo guard from the prestigious Porter Gaud School in Charleston, SC. He’s not your typical 5-star, and therefore is the kind of elite player that Barnes is willing to recruit. He doesn’t come with an entourage and his recruitment, though it featured a handful of blue bloods like Duke, wasn’t your typical shady business that particular coaches or schools (including at least a couple in the state of Tennessee) would be willing to get their hands dirty in but Barnes will have nothing to do with. Barnes sold family and fit, and there’s no doubt that Williams’ success on and off the court was a big part of that pitch. James represents a continuation of the model Tennessee student-athlete that Dobbs and Williams have built, but now with the kind of recruiting pedigree that Tennessee basketball has rarely seen in its history.
James signed on with the Vols after one big season at Tennessee from Barnes. And although the 2019 class may or may not be full the 2020 class is where Tennessee could really take a step in terms of landing multiple elite players and continue to validate its rise as a nascent basketball power. That’s a class that will have seen not just last season’s surprising 26-9 SEC championship team but also this season, in which the Vols have been a national darling all year, playing against then #1 Kansas in Brooklyn (after beating now Top 10 Louisville), against then #1 Gonzaga in Phoenix, and of course rising to #1 right now.
Among others (including fellow 5-star Jaden Springer, who plays for former Tennessee point guard Bobby Maze’s B.Maze Elite AAU program, and Memphis product SG Matthew Murrell, another bigtime academic kid as well), the Vols have focused their 2020 recruiting efforts on two prospects who very much fit the Dobbs/Williams/James mold: Wing Keon Johnson from Bell Buckle, TN and PF/C Walker Kessler. Both Johnson and Kessler are being courted by the likes of UVA and Michigan, while Johnson has local academic power Vanderbilt as a finalist and Kessler also has Duke and UNC hot on his trail.
The Vols appear to be in very strong shape with Johnson, who has visited Knoxville a few times already including for an official visit in October and then again in early January for the Vols’ absolute annihilation of UGA. He also took in Tennessee’s come from behind win last week in Nashville against Vanderbilt in which half of Vandy’s Memorial Gymnasium was Orange and Williams went off for 43 points. Kessler, who could possibly reclassify to the 2019 class – a scenario in which Tennessee would absolutely make room for him – has already taken official visits to Michigan and UVA and is set to trip to Duke this coming weekend. The Vols are hoping to get him to Knoxville for an official visit the following weekend when they host Florida in front of yet another sold out Thompson-Boiling Arena crowd of over 20,000. From there he’ll likely start to narrow things down and at the same time make a decision on which class he’ll be a part of.
Without a doubt Kessler will get the same pitch that Burns (who also was heavily sought after by UVA) and James each got, and then Johnson heard as well on his official visit: “Come be a part of something special we’re building here at Tennessee. Be a part of this culture we’ve created. We’re winning at a very high level and are set up to continue to do so. Yes, Duke and UVA are great schools. But we can get you where you want to be off the court too. Just ask Josh Dobbs. Ask Grant Williams*. Ask Josiah James**.” That’s a message that is resonating, and as Barnes and Tennessee continue to win at this level and establish the program as a year-in-year-out contender they’ll continue to build the right way with the right kinds of kids. Johnson and Kessler – and perhaps some combination of Springer/Murrell/Stone/Samson Ruthentsev and others – are the next in line.
* Grant will probably be his host, he’s that invested in the program
**James purposely took another unofficial visit to Tennessee the weekend Keon Johnson was on his official just to be around him – he’s already that invested himself