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Team Previews: Tennessee

Overview


After Tennessee fired Donnie Tyndall following allegations of NCAA violations that school officials said that Tyndall lied about during the initial hiring process, the Volunteers’ program felt like it was at a low point that had not been seen since the dismissal of Bruce Pearl in 2011. The Volunteers were able to go out and snatch Rick Barnes from Texas, which has set the program back on a path that has nearly matched the success of Pearl’s regime of the late 2000’s. Barnes has led the Volunteers to the NCAA Tournament in three of his six seasons at the helm, including this past season where they compiled an 18-9 (10-7) record and earned a five-seed, where they lost in their first game against PAC-12 Tournament champs Oregon State. The Volunteers bring back a number of their top players in their quest to continue to be among the upper echelon of the SEC yet again.


Who’s Back, Who’s Gone?


Rick Barnes brought in the fifth-ranked recruiting class in the country before the 2020-21 season, and that recruiting class netted them two first-round picks in five-stars Jaden Springer (28th overall to Philadelphia) and Keon Johnson (21st overall to the LA Clippers), who both departed Knoxville after one season in which they were the top two scorers for the Volunteers, averaging 12.5 and 11.3 PPG, respectively. The Volunteers also lost the 2019-20 SEC Defensive Player of the Year in the form of French phenom Yves Pons, who led the SEC in blocks in 2019-20 before taking a minor step back in production this past season, averaging 8.5 PPG this past season. Pons went undrafted in the NBA Draft before playing in the Las Vegas Summer League with the Memphis Grizzlies.


Along with the three players that are departing Tennessee for the NBA, the Vols also lose four players to the transfer portal. Chief among these departures is forward Davonte Gaines, who was scapegoated by the Tennessee fanbase after missing two critical free throws in the SEC Tournament semifinals against Alabama. Gaines followed former Tennessee assistant Kim English to George Mason in the A-10 and should feature there prominently after having a largely disappointing second season in Knoxville. Joining Gaines as outgoing transfers are forward EJ Anosike, who is returning to Sacred Heart after spending four seasons there prior to last season, forward Drew Pember, who is heading across the Smoky Mountains to play for UNC-Asheville in the Big South Conference, and former top-60 recruit Corey Walker Jr., who didn’t play last season before transferring to South Florida. This crop of outgoing transfers didn’t have the biggest impact on how Tennessee played last season, freeing up space for new players to fill out the roster.


As far as returning players, Tennessee brings back a number of top players from last season’s squad that will factor into their rotation this season. Third-leading-scorer, guard Victor Bailey Jr. is returning for his second season in Knoxville after transferring in from Oregon before the 2019 season and will factor into the backcourt. Starting point guard Santiago Vescovi also returns to hold down the backcourt for his third season after averaging 8.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG and 3.1 APG last season. To round out the starting level backcourt returners, Josiah-Jordan James is the third starting-level player that is returning to Knoxville after leading the Vols in rebounds per game at 6.5.


The frontcourt returners for Tennessee are led by John Fulkerson, who is returning for his sixth season at Tennessee after utilizing the extra season afforded by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fulkerson had his best season in 2019-20, leading the Volunteers in rebounding and scoring before taking a step back this past season, but should still be a key contributor for a team that will not be as reliant on their frontcourt play. Center Uros Plavsic and forward Olivier Nkamhoua also return and will provide some frontcourt depth for the Vols behind Fulkerson and some of the newcomers that will be mentioned later.


Newcomers


Tennessee and Rick Barnes have always excelled at recruiting high school players to come to Knoxville. The Vols finished in the top five of the 247 team rankings in both 2020 and 2021, and that 2021 class is led by the top-rated point guard in the country and U-19 gold medalist Kennedy Chandler. The five-star from Memphis, TN played his final high school season at Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, KS and was selected as one of the top U-19 players to represent the United States in Latvia, where he played significant minutes off the bench. Joining him in the five-star ranks is 2022-turned-2021 five-star Brandon Huntley-Hatfield (Clarksville, TN), who is a forward with good position size at 6’9” that can also put the ball on the floor from the perimeter.


The two five-star players highlight the class, but there are still five more recruits that are enrolling at Tennessee as freshmen for this upcoming season. Former Marquette commit, four-star forward Jonas Aidoo (Durham, NC), four-star forward Jahmai Mashack (Fontana, CA), three-star guard Quentin Diboundje (Montpelier, France), three-star guard Zakai Zeigler (Long Island, NY) and three-star center Handje Tamba (Knoxville, TN) all join the Vols to bolster their reserves after all of the outgoing transfer movement occurred and nearly all of them should factor into the conversation for playing time.


The final addition that Rick Barnes and company made was from the transfer portal in the form of Auburn freshman standout Justin Powell. Powell played 10 games last season before suffering a concussion that ultimately ended his season, but not before averaging 11.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG and 4.7 APG. Powell was one of the best freshmen in the SEC last season before his injury and, provided he returns to his old form after his injury last season, should be one of the better players in the league.


Projected Rotation

G: Santiago Vescovi

G: Justin Powell

G: Josiah Jordan-James

F: Brandon Huntley-Hatfield

F: John Fulkerson

Bench: Kennedy Chandler

Bench: Victor Bailey Jr.

Bench: Jonas Aidoo

Bench: Jahmai Mashack

Bench: Olivier Nkamhoua

Bench: Uros Plavsic

Bench: Quentin Diboundje

Bench: Zakai Zeigler

Bench: Handje Tamba


Tennessee’s starting lineup has numerous points of uncertainty heading into this upcoming season. The Vols realistically have 7-8 players that could realistically start for them on any given night, which is a good problem to have for Rick Barnes. Vescovi gets the nod to start over Chandler given his collegiate experience, but Chandler could easily take that spot given the pedigree associated with him. Powell and Jordan-James are close to being locks to start, although Bailey Jr. will certainly be a contender for that spot if Barnes prefers to bring Powell off the bench. The frontcourt rotation is a bit more defined, with Huntley-Hatfield and Fulkerson getting the first two spots with Aidoo being the primary backup for those spots. Trusting Plavsic or Nkamhoua to be the fourth big might be a tall ask, but those players have played in that role before which should make them serviceable at worse in that limited role.

Non-Conference Breakdown


The Volunteers open their season with two games at home against in-state foes Tennessee-Martin (KenPom #347 last season) and East Tennessee State (KP #128) before traveling to the Air Force Reserve Hall of Fame Tipoff in Uncasville, CT and the Mohegan Sun Arena. They open the four-team tournament playing Villanova (KP #12) before playing either Purdue (KP #25) or North Carolina (KP #34) in one of the best tournaments in college basketball this season. After returning from this tournament, they have two easier challenges in Tennessee Tech (KP #313) and Presbyterian (KP #326) before playing the away leg of their home-and-home series with Colorado (KP #8) that began last season with a 56-47 victory for Tennessee.


A new-look Texas Tech team (KP #17) is the next opponent for the Vols at Madison Square Garden in New York City before two more buy games against against SoCon tournament champions UNC-Greensboro (KP #108) and USC-Upstate (KP #322). To close out the 2021 slate, the Vols travel down the road to Nashville and Bridgestone Arena to play in-state rival Memphis (KP #31) before returning home to face Arizona (KP #29). One final non-conference game comes in the form of the SEC-Big 12 Challenge in late January 2022 against preseason top-5 team Texas (KP #26).


Tennessee has one of the more stratified schedules in the country, with no games coming against teams between 128 and 313 in last season’s final KenPom rankings. On the upper end of the spectrum, the Vols take on eight top-50 opponents, giving them the third-most difficult in the SEC based on last season’s KenPom rankings. The schedule should challenge them but with their depth being the way that it is, they should be able to handle that kind of load pretty well.


Final Thoughts


Tennessee has been one of the best teams in the SEC the last few seasons and this season should be no different. Bringing back a number of key contributors off a team that was a five-seed in the NCAA Tournament is certainly grounds for optimism, but the real upside for this team comes in the form of their incoming freshmen and transfer in Justin Powell. Having that level of talent will put Tennessee right at the top level of the SEC based on talent, but Rick Barnes will have a challenge to make it all work together. All in all, Tennessee should be a contender for a top-4 seed in the conference and should easily make the tournament as an at-large if they don’t win the SEC Tournament outright.


Superlatives

MVP: Josiah-Jordan James

Offensive Player of the Year: Santiago Vescovi

Defensive Player of the Year: Josiah-Jordan James

Freshman of the Year: Brandon Huntley-Hatfield

Best Transfer: Justin Powell

Most Improved Player: Santiago Vescovi

X-Factor: John Fulkerson

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