It’s hard not to be incredibly excited about Tennessee Basketball right now. Heading into the SEC Tournament after an SEC championship and a 23-7 finish that will likely earn the Volunteers a 3-seed at a minimum in the NCAA Tournament, the 2017-18 season is already one of the best seasons in a long time for the Vols. However, perhaps as exciting for those of us who like to look forward even just a little bit is the realistic notion that this kind of season could become more of the norm than an aberration for at least the foreseeable future.
Much has been made of the relative youth of this team – regular watchers of Tennessee games know they can rely on an announcer’s citation that the Vols are the fifth youngest team in college basketball, a ranking that would be even higher were it not for the veteran presence of 24-year old 5th-year transfer James Daniel III. Looking forward though, it’s notable that “JD3” is the only player on the current 13-man roster scheduled to depart after this season, which of course makes a fan drool at the thought of the continued development of the rest of the team going into next season and beyond.
However, when you dig a bit deeper into the roster makeup you realize how much more upside there is to be realized in the not-too-distant future. Of the current thirteen players on the roster, NINE are either freshmen or sophomores. The sophomore class – which includes Redshirt sophomore G Lamonte Turner – is the backbone of the team and obviously has plenty of time to continue to improve and develop. Perhaps more exciting, though, is that this year’s freshman class a) appears to have been meaningfully underrated, and b) is augmented by two redshirts from last season in SF Jalen Johnson – the #147 ranked player his class – and PF John Fulkerson (who redshirted after being injured early last year after a very promising start to the season). Johnson has gotten some playing time later in the season and has shown flashes of the athleticism and shooting that has the staff very excited about his future, while Fulkerson has had an up and down season following missing almost a full year of basketball and strength and conditioning after his injury but has continued to get minutes deep into the season. Both should be counted on to continue to develop and are likely to push much more strongly to get more into the rotation next season.
The true freshmen class of 2017 is comprised of PF Derrick Walker, SF/PF Yves Pons, and PF/C Zach Kent. Walker has emerged as an integral piece of the current team, showing a beyond-his-years court awareness and passing ability to go with a soft touch around the rim (with both hands!) and a physicality matched on the team only by Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Pons, the most hyped player of the class, came in as a very raw but very tantalizing prospect with uber-athleticism and a not-broken shot. After getting barely spot minutes for most of the season, his progress has taken a step-function change in the last 3-4 weeks and he now finds himself getting regular – and increasing – minutes. Part of the progress has been at the defensive end, as his improved comfortability has allowed him to showcase his length, athleticism, and physicality on the defensive end while at the same time expanding his offensive game, capped by hitting a 3-pointer at Ole Miss (he’s now 2-2 on the season) and making two slashing plays to the basket against Mississippi State that led to two free throws and a made layup off a tight curl. He also made a great pass in the haflcourt to a cutting Lamonte Turner in the game against State, showing impressive awareness on the play. Kent is another strategic redshirt for Coach Barnes following Jalen Johnson’s from last season – who though not particularly well known by Vol fans, especially since he’s sat on the bench all season – actually ended up being ranked in the Top 175 and earned offers over the course of his recruitment from Indiana, Maryland, Notre Dame and Oregon among others. Kent will go into next season with no expectations but a skill set that is unique to the team: A 6’11, ~235 lb player with range to 25 feet, Kent is not a banger by any stretch but is likely more physical and athletic than given credit for. He will give Barnes tons of options in terms of who he can pair him with – that kind of shooting threat from a PF/C will make teams think twice about double-teaming Grant Williams and Co. in the paint in a different way than Schofield’s slashing or Williams’ deft passing do currently, and with a year in the weight room Kent should be able to at least hold his own in the post on defense and on the board.
As one can see, not only is this year’s team young, but the really young talent in the program has a plenty of development in front of it, which is very exciting considering how good the team is already. With Barnes’ history of player/skill development one can easily imagine large leaps for the bulk of the roster between this season and next and even beyond.
Class of 2018 will be Small but Likely Talented
Due to the aforementioned youth of the roster Tennessee has only one scheduled scholarship opening for the 2018 class. It is well known that the Vols have been chasing 5-star Anfernee Simons, who took his official visit to Knoxville earlier this season for the UNC game. While the Vols seem to be in strong shape for Simons relative to other college programs, Simons is eligible for the NBA Draft and very likely could go that route (which he should if he’s going to be a 1st round pick). He’s an elite player though and the Vols won’t give up until it’s over, and he would instantly upgrde the overall roster for next season. Given the uncertainty with Simons the Vols have stepped up their pursuit of diminutive Memphis 4-star PG Tyler Harris. Harris was scheduled to officially visit this past weekend for the Georgia game but had to cancel due to his team making a deep run in the state tournament. There is clearly interest there, but Baylor is thought to be his leader with Mississippi State is strongly in the mix as well. Getting him to campus will be paramount if the Vols want to land him.
After those two there isn’t an obvious target. However, there are a couple variables that could lead to both Rick Barnes being very picky about what he does with that scholarship and at the same time what kind of options he and the Vols have. For one, there are certain to be decommitments and even signees let out of scholarships when firings start as the regular season ends. Secondly, Tennessee’s profile should rise quite a bit in the month of March Madness after what could be a big run in the NCAA tournament. Knowing that one could step into a team primed for another big season and NCAA Tournament run next year would likely be very attractive to a high level player. And should the Vols not land the kind of high school prospect they want they will have the same uber-attractive pitch to make to a 5th-year grad transfer – plus they’ll be able to point to the success JD3 had in that role this year. Put it all together and it seems reasonable to think that one way or the other Tennessee is going to add a very talented player with its one 2018 spot to further enhance its 2018-19 roster.
Class of 2019 Setting up to Be Best in a Looooong Time
Barnes has taken some flak from UT fans (criticism that has died down tremendously over the course of this season) for not recruiting at a high level in terms of industry rankings. However, the Class of 2019 already looks likely to change that narrative, and that’s before the aforementioned publicity and jolt of momentum that should come from the team’s performance in March and what one would expect to be another very strong team – and the accompanying preseason buzz and subsequent national TV games – in 2018-19. The Vols are already scheduled to participate in next season’s NIT Season Tip-Off in Brooklyn, NY along with Kansas, Louisville, and Marquette, and one can assume that Tennessee will get a marquee matchup in the annual SEC-Big 12 Challenge as well. These will complement what is annually a strong non-conference slate under Coach Barnes, giving the Vols a myriad of opportunities to showcase the program.
When it comes to recruits themselves, Barnes and his staff are well ahead of where they’ve been to-date when it comes to high-level talent. The Vols already have a commitment from SF Davonte Gaines, currently only the 200th ranked player in the country despite having a dominant senior season – he is working on a marvelous end to the season as his team makes a run towards a state title and has surpassed the 1,000 career point mark while being a do-everything star. He’s going to take a 5th year at Hargrave Academy and will spend the year bulking up his wiry frame and continuing to develop his already prodigious skill set in a tougher competitive environment. I’d bet money he ends up ranked much higher when all is said and done.
It gets even more exciting when you consider what kind of other 2019 prospects the Vols are in deep with. Tennessee took advantage of this year’s sellout at Thompson-Boiling Arena against North Carolina by hosting not only the aforementioned Simons but also 2019 stars PF/C DJ Burns (the #73 player in the country) and Guards Marcus Watson (#88), Trey McGowens (#89) and Kira Lewis (#119) along with C Jason Jitobah (#191) from Chattanooga who has offers from the Vols as well as Auburn and UF. The Vols were also the first major conference offer for 5-star Wing Josiah James and look to try and remain firmly in the mix there. Additionally, the Vols are going to try and wedge their way into the picture for former UGA 5-star PG commit Ashton Hagans after having been one of his options before he committed. And finally, the Vols also just recently offered SG KyKy Tandy (#150) from Hopkinsville, KY (of Isaiah Victor fame) after watching him work out.
Burns in particular appears to be a Vol lean at this point, having been on campus multiple times including for a camp back in 2016 (when he was offered), and this past October for an unofficial visit before being in the house for the UNC game. Jitobah has been another frequent visitor to campus, taking in both the UNC and UK home games after having visited unofficially in September.
Looking out to 2020 (an eternity, of course), the Vols have already offered 4 high-level prospects including 5-star Jaden Springer (who was on campus for an unofficial visit in September and then the UK game). Obviously Barnes is looking to leverage this outstanding season and the increased national exposure into a higher-caliber level of talent. That said, I would absolutely not expect him to go back on his stated desire to eschew the one-and-done types that burned him at Texas, and you can also be sure he will steer clear of anything that even smells of the kind of NCAA trouble that can sometimes accompany elite college basketball recruits.
Vol Fans: Enjoy the Ride
The bottom line for Tennessee basketball fans is that after being on the precipice of the college basketball elite following the program’s first Elite 8 appearance in 2010 and wandering in the wilderness since then (with the exception of the out-of-nowhere Sweet 16 run by Cuonzo Martin’s team a few years later that was immediately followed by his departure to Cal), it’s time to sit back and enjoy this success. Because there is almost nothing better than March Madness when your team is not just involved but also a real contender, and when you look at what the program looks like now and what it could be in the near future Tennessee fans can only salivate at the thought that what Coach Rick Barnes is constructing in Knoxville is built to last much longer than one magical season but instead could realistically continue to get better and better