Even after last season’s rather disappointing performance by Tennessee’s standards, the Volunteers have been one of the top teams in the SEC for the last few seasons, having made the NCAA tournament the two seasons prior, and this upcoming season looks to be no different. The Volunteers return many key players as well as bringing in a top recruiting class that has made them one of the favorites in the SEC, if not the outright favorite over Kentucky. Rick Barnes and company will have their work cut out for them to live up to those expectations, but with the talent and coaching that the Vols have, they can live up to those expectations very easily.
Who’s Back, Who’s Gone?
One of the biggest challenges for the Vols to overcome is the loss of two key senior contributors, guards Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner. Bowden posted career numbers last season, averaging 13.7 PPG and 4.0 RPG, both career highs, while Turner played 11 games before being lost to a shoulder injury in December after playing 28 games in 2018-19. Bowden and Turner weren’t the only outgoing players, however. The Volunteers also lost role players Zach Kent (Delaware State) and Jalen Johnson (first ETSU and then Wake Forest after the coaching change) to outgoing transfer, and while both of those players didn’t make the most headlines, they provided quality depth for a team that is always looking for players to provide depth across the board.
On the other side of the coin, the Volunteers bring back numerous key contributors, including four returning starters. Sophomores G Santiago Vescovi, who could be considered the SEC’s newcomer of the year last season after joining the Volunteers in January and starting the final 19 games at point guard and averaging 10.7 PPG during those games, and G Josiah-Jordan James (7.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG) are two incumbent backcourt starters, while the forward spots are manned by 2019-20 SEC Defender Of The Year, senior Yves Pons, who made a large leap forward in his offensive skills (10.8 PPG) last season, and senior John Fulkerson, who made the All-SEC team last season while co-leading the team in scoring with 13.7 PPG, along with 5.7 RPG. Additionally, the Volunteers bring back a few bench contributors, such as Arizona State transfer and redshirt sophomore C Uros Plavsic, sophomore G Davontae Gaines, sophomore F Olivier Robinson-Nkamhoua and sophomore F Drew Pember, who all played between 16 and 30 games for the Volunteers last season and will continue to provide quality depth.
The marquee additions for the Volunteers this offseason came in the form of an incredible recruiting class that was ranked top-5 nationally according to 247Sports’ team rankings, and includes two top-20 five-star players in guards Jaden Springer (IMG Academy) and Keon Johnson (Bell Buckle, TN). These two recruits are two of the top five recruits in Tennessee history (behind current and former NBA players Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson), which gives Tennessee fans plenty of excitement as to what is to come from the possible one-and-done players. The class also includes top-75 four-star F, Corey Walker (Chatham, VA), who is highly regarded in his own right, as well as two-sport walk-on and three-star G, Malachi Wideman, who will not take up a scholarship for basketball because of his scholarship status on the football team at UT.
Along with the four freshman newcomers, Rick Barnes was able to bring in two transfers in forwards E.J. Anosike, who averaged nearly 16 point and 12 rebounds per game for Sacred Heart last season, and Victor Bailey Jr., who transferred in from Oregon before last season and sat out due to NCAA transfer rules. Anosike probably won’t be expected to reach that high level of production in the SEC, especially given that he’s an undersized big at only 6’6”, but the production at the lower level was enough for Barnes to bring him in to provide that strong rebounding presence inside, while Bailey is expected to provide bench depth at the forward spot.
G: Santiago Vescovi
G: Jaden Springer
G: Josiah-Jordan James
F: Yves Pons
F: John Fulkerson
Bench: E.J. Anosike
Bench: Victor Bailey Jr.
Bench: Uros Plavsic
Bench: Davontae Gaines
Bench: Olivier Robinson-Nkamhoua
Bench: Drew Pember
Bench: Keon Johnson
Bench: Corey Walker Jr.
Bench: Malachi Wideman (non-scholarship)
Tennessee does not have much drama regarding their starting lineup. The four returning starters retain their incumbent status, while Jaden Springer takes the final backcourt spot vacated by Bowden. Keon Johnson could also take Springer’s spot, depending on how Barnes sees those players’ roles unfolding this season. Tennessee could also go for a deeper bench with the amount of quality scholarship players they have, but I would imagine they would go with a maximum of an 11-man bench, barring injuries.
Looking to the Future
Tennessee has already begun their 2021 recruiting class strong, with two top-100 commitments already pledged to come to Knoxville. This class is headed by five-star stud G, Kennedy Chandler (Sunrise Christian, Wichita, KS), who is ranked as the 2nd-best point guard in the 2021 class behind Alabama commit JD Davison, as well as four-star F, Jahmai Mashack (Rancho Cucamonga, CA), who will fill a wing spot that is being left by Pons after this season. The Vols still have one more spot to fill, which could be filled by another transfer big next cycle or three-star F, Randy Brady, who is listed as “warm” for the Volunteers.
Heading into the 2020-21 season, Tennessee fans have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their team. They bring back a load of productive players from last season’s team that now have another year of experience in Rick Barnes’ system, while also bringing in a historic prep signing class and two transfers that can fill in around the edges. Barnes is also one of the best coaches in the SEC, so taking all of these pieces and putting them together into a cohesive unit that plays hard on both ends of the floor should be achievable. All in all, the Volunteers will be one of the best teams in the SEC, and should be a contender to win the league and earn the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament come March.
For more Alabama hoops coverage, be sure to follow Crimson Crossover on all social media platforms: