With the 2018 college basketball season year set to tip off, @FarmerBarn and @BarnBurnerZiggy will provide in-depth coverage of the Tennessee Men’s basketball team – a team with sky-high expectations looking to build off of last year’s surprising success — all season long. Follow along for the ride.
The Tennessee Men’s Basketball Team hasn’t made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2013. Rick Barnes and a deep 2018 Volunteers squad look poised to change that.
After preseason pundits picked Tennessee to finish 13th in the conference prior to the start of the 2017 season, the Vols shocked just about everyone when a relatively inexperienced squad finished 26-9 and shared the regular season SEC crown with the Auburn Tigers (coached by former Vols coach Bruce Pearl). A storybook season came crashing to a halt with an upset loss to last year’s Cinderella team, Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean. Seven months later on the eve of a new season, Tennessee finds itself ranked sixth in the Associated Press poll – its highest ranking ever — and wanting to do things a Volunteers team has never done before.
THE 2018 BALLERVOL SQUAD
After taking their fair share of lumps over the previous two to three seasons, Rick Barnes now has the luxury of deploying a junior and senior-laden lineup and team. The 2018 Vols return all five starters from a year ago and 11 of their 13 scholarship players. Of the 9 probable players who look to grab significant minutes, 7 enter at least their third or fourth season of college ball. In total, Tennessee welcomes back players who accounted for 90% of their scoring from last year’s team, good for sixth-best among Power 5 schools, and returns the top scoring defense in the SEC.
Tennessee is led by the return of the reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams (Jr.) and guard Admiral Schofield (Sr.), a member of the 2017 Second Team All-SEC team. Schofield briefly tested the NBA draft waters, but decided to return for his senior season. The experience was one Barnes felt would pay huge dividends for Schofield and the 2018 team. In addition to the aforementioned duo, Tennessee welcomes back the return of center Kyle Alexander (who notably missed Tennessee’s second round loss to Loyola-Chicago with an injury). The senior from Ontario, Canada provides great shot-blocking as a rim protector and steadily improved as a rebounder. Between the three, the Vols have grown men who Barnes can deploy on the block as battering rams.
Point guard Jordan Bone (Jr.) will once again helm the Vols offense. Entering his third year as starter, the 6-3 speedster can get to just about any spot on the floor when he stays aggressive. According to Barnes, Bone had one of the best offseason of any player on the team. Guard Jordan Bowden (JR.) rounds out Tennessee’s projected starting five. An excellent on the ball defender, Bowden has struggled with his shot at different times in the past two years. With so many different weapons, he’s likely to get plenty of opportunities to spot up and shoot from beyond the three-point line.
Barnes has the incredible luxury of bringing last year’s SEC Co-Sixth man of the Year Lamonte Turner (R-Jr.) off the bench. The stocky guard is a streaky shooter who does not fear taking and making big shots (see the late 3 he hit against Kentucky on the road last season). Combo guard-forward Yves Pons (So.) is another weapon for Barnes to tinker with and boy what a weapon he is. Pons spent the majority of last year adjusting to both the English language and American-style of basketball, but he stands 6-6 with a nearly seven-foot wingspan. Him and Bowden should form one of the more formidable defensive duos in not just the SEC but the entire country. In an already crowded backcourt, wiry guard Jalen Johnson (R-So.) looks to carve out some minutes. The talented scorer has struggled to put on weight in college but now finds himself around 190 pounds.
Foul trouble to Williams, Schofield or Alexander is by no means fatal to this Vols team. Barnes can call upon low-post reinforcements in John Fulkerson (R-So.) or Derrick Walker (So.). Fulkerson’s development as a bouncy forward was set back by a freshman elbow injury that saw him miss the majority of the 2016-2017 season. He struggled to find his game much of last season, but should be improved after a full offseason of work under his belt. Walker is built similar to Grant Williams. With a wide-body (236 lbs) and good length (6-8), he can bang down low with opposing forwards/centers and can finish with a soft touch. Stretch-forward Zach Kent is the oft-forgotten man on the Tennessee roster. The 6-11 sophomore is a reliable three-point shooter, but will miss the start of the season after having a minor surgery on his knee. The set-back may mean Kent finds playing time hard to come by. With a variety of low and high-post options to choose from, Barnes now finds himself in the enviable position of likely redshirting a player like incoming freshman post player D.J. Burns, a top 100 recruit for the Class of 2019 who graduated a year early so he could enroll at UT.
QUOTE THAT SUMS UP THE 2018-19 VOLS
“Let’s go and see what we’ve got. We’re willing to go play anytime, any place, anywhere.”
BREAKOUT PLAYER FOR THE VOLS
Sophomore Yves Pons (pronounced EEV POHNS) faced a steep learning curve last season upon his arrival in Knoxville from Fuveau, France. After a freshman season in which he played sparingly, the uber athlete logged a lot of hours trying to improve his game this offseason. The work didn’t go unnoticed by his head coach.
“He probably had the best spring – he did. I don’t think there’s any question he took more time in the practice facility more than anybody.”
Pons is reportedly on the radar of NBA scouts. An otherworldly vertical jump and strong build allows Pons to guard just about any position on the floor. If all the hours spent in the gym did in fact result in an improved shooting stroke, the sky is the limit for the Freakish Frenchman.
Prepare for takeoff.
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) September 13, 2018
OUT OF CONFERENCE GAMES TO WATCH
The NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET, replaces the old RPI system as the new method of choice for the NCAA selection Committee to evaluate college basketball teams. At least on paper, the Vols have a chance to do themselves some real favors come March with an impressive array of non-conference opponents.
Tennessee kicks the 2018 season off with a spot in the loaded 2018 NIT Season Tip-Off. An opening round matchup against the Louisville Cardinals would likely mean a date with preseason No.1 Kansas Jayhawks in the championship of the Brooklyn tournament.
Less than three weeks later, Tennessee flies to Phoenix to complete the second game of a home-and-away with Mark Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs. Just six days later the Vols travel to the FedEx Forum to face an upstart Memphis Tigers squad rejuvenated by the hiring of former Memphis alum and NBA star Penny Hardaway. But I’m sure that’s news to everyone around here. Fans of both the Vols and Tigers collectively rejoiced when the rivalry was once again renewed for the first time in five years. Look for the BarnBurner crew to provide extensive coverage of this game, as many of us have plans to be in attendance.
Finally, the Vols host the West Virginia Mountaineers in the SEC-Big 12 challenge. The matchup with Bob Huggins’ club will come smack dab in the middle of conference play near the end of January.
In total, the BallerVols out of conference schedule boasts at least two teams with preseason rankings inside the top 15 and could possibly add another in Kansas. If Tennessee wins a few of these games, particularly against quality teams on the road, and finishes with a strong conference record, the payoff is likely a tournament seed in the 1-3 range come March.
BIGGEST CHALLENGER IN THE SEC
This answer should come as no surprise: Kentucky. Last season, Rick Barnes’ squad swept the regular season series against the ‘Cats for the first time since 1998-99. Kentucky exacted revenge by winning the third match-up in the conference tournament.
Coach John Calipari once again finds his team ranked inside the preseason top 5 at no. 2 behind only Kansas. As he does year in and year out, Calipari welcomes a top recruiting class to Lexington to pair with returning players Quade Green (9.8 points), big-man PJ Washington (10.8 points) and Jemarl Baker, a redshirt guard who missed last season due to a knee injury. A wealth of talented five stars aside, arguably the biggest recruit Calipari nabbed this offseason was graduate transfer Reid Travis. A former Stanford post player and two-time first-team All Pac-12 selection, Travis gives Calipari something he’s sorely lacked throughout his tenure at Kentucky – the steadying presence of an upperclassman who happens to have a grown man’s body (6-8, 238 lbs). The Vols and Kentucky won’t meet until nearly the end of the season, playing each other twice in a three week span. The outcome of both games will go a long way toward deciding who wins the regular season conference title.
THE BARNBURNER’S BOLD & FEARLESS SEASON PREDICTION FOR UT
With a team buoyed by experienced upperclassmen, anything less than the Elite 8 for Rick Barnes and the Vols would be a huge disappointment. In the era of one-and-dones (maybe not for too much longer, I may add), a team long on experience with a plethora of talent and a master tactician of a coach to boot should equate to a deep tourney run.
SEC REGULAR SEASON: Runner-up to Kentucky
SEC CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT: Champion
NCAA TOURNAMENT: Final Four
Like the column? Follow along on Twitter at @FarmerBarn and @The_BarnBurner.
Banner Image/Credit: UT Athletics