With another stellar recruiting class on the way, Tennessee basketball looks to turn in a special season in Knoxville.
Riley’s Ranking: 18th
Ever since the Grant Williams-Admiral Schofield-Jordan Bone trio put Tennessee basketball on the map, Rick Barnes has established a new normal in Knoxville. Season after season, highly touted recruits enter the program to play alongside savvy upperclassmen and transfers. It’s safe to say the head coach has struck an ideal balance in roster building.
This year will be no different. The Vols return four upperclassmen who all played at least 60 percent of available minutes last season, and they will pair with the nation’s 4th-ranked recruiting class.
Thus, even after losing first-round draft picks Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, there shouldn’t be much fall-off in production. In actuality, this year’s newcomers might even fit better than the Springer-Johnson pairing.
Kennedy Chandler headlines the incoming group as a five-star recruit from the powerhouse Sunrise Christian Academy. The Memphis product gives the Vols something the Vols have lacked since Bone left: a true point guard.
Look no further than last season to see how his skillset fills a huge need. In 2021, Springer, Johnson and Santiago Vescovi alternated as primary initiators, yielding mixed results. The inconsistencies weren’t surprising, given the nature of relying on a bunch of combo guards. But throughout the year, the Vols’ scoring became unbearably … well … volatile. For example, Tennessee would follow up sublime offensive performances (like a January home win over Kansas where it averaged 1.2 PPP) with miserable showings (like a February loss at Ole Miss where it averaged .78 PPP).
Hopefully, Chandler can provide stability. Despite being a freshman, the floor general exhibits unparalleled poise in running the offense. In particular, his vision and playmaking distinguish him from the average rookie. Chandler excels at making reads out of ball screens, especially in pick-and-pop action, where he zips passes with accuracy. And when he gets into the lane, he always finds cutters for easy baskets.
While his shooting is a bit streaky, he showed glimmers of go-to scoring at Sunrise. And when he falters, Auburn transfer Justin Powell can pick up the slack. An unheralded three-star prospect, Powell erupted in the first ten games of his college career. Unfortunately, a serious concussion ended his season and, ultimately, his time at Auburn. But now, in new surroundings, he enters the fall as the SEC’s top breakout candidate. The 6-6 guard flashes a tight handle, adeptness at scoring on and off-ball, and a gorgeous 3-point shot. Don’t be fooled by his resemblance to Buzz from Home Alone; Powell will give you buckets.
The new duo likely relegates Vescovi to bench duties; however, a spark-plug designation should fit him more appropriately. The junior guard brings microwave scoring potency off the pine, and a reduced role will help mitigate his turnovers.
To start the season, Barnes will probably go small with Victor Bailey and Josiah-Jordan James completing his starting perimeter unit. Bailey supplies steady guard play as a known commodity, while James could still realize his massive potential.
A former McDonald’s All-American, James manned both the “1” and the “3” as a freshman before settling into a nominal big man role as a sophomore. Throughout last season, he displayed the extent of his defensive versatility. The 6-6 junior harnesses his vertical athleticism to alter shots at the rim as a help defender, but he also contains high-scoring wings with his agility and swift hips. In 2021, he was the only player to finish top-10 in the SEC in both steal rate and block rate. Below, he eradicates a layup attempt from lottery pick Moses “Mody Muzi” Moody:
On offense, perhaps a clearly defined position will turn him into a reliable third option. James already boasts solid playmaking skills and a decent jumper — two traits that could lead to a higher usage rate. But even if he doesn’t improve offensively, he will shine as a superstar glue guy.
Freshman Jahmai Mashack will also factor into the rotation. The rangy wing will help maintain Tennessee’s stout defense and its high defensive turnover rate (13th nationally last year).
Pivoting to the frontcourt, the Vols certainly don’t lack size — though John Fulkerson is the only member who has logged major minutes at the collegiate level. “Fulky” surprised Volunteer fans with his heartwarming announcement to return for Year 5. And while his efficiency dipped last season, he still brings a “heart and soul” leadership to Tennessee.
Barnes may need to lean on his experience as he integrates freshmen Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and Jonas Aidoo. “BHH” is raw and Aidoo is rawer. But both frosh show traits that intrigue professional scouts. Huntley-Hatfield plays with tenacity around the basket, snaring rebounds and punctuating dunks off of dives. He also shows fantastic coordination and a decent handle. However, re-classified freshmen often struggle to adapt to college ball right away.
The 7-foot Aidoo shoots with incredible touch that extends out to distance, but his Slim-Jim frame may betray him versus some conference bell cows. Still, deploying future pros in the second unit is a luxury any coach would love to have.
In addition to Huntley-Hatfield and Aidoo, Barnes can turn to the massive Uros Plavsic and the bulky Olivier Nkamhoua. The European duo feeds off of physicality and detracts challengers from the lane.
Speaking of the defense, it may take a step back without the monstrous Yves Pons. Nonetheless, Tennessee basketball retains more than enough pieces to execute Barnes’ pack-line scheme. James will anchor the unit, but both the perimeter and frontcourt depth can help lighten the load. Plus, the offensive cohesiveness should even out any defensive decline. With the upside of this team, Tennessee fans won’t feel the need to throw mustard bottles and assorted garbage on the court. *Sings to self* That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top get their joy from a Barnes.
Projected starters: G – Kennedy Chandler (Fr.); G – Justin Powell (So.); G – Victor Bailey (Sr.); F – Josiah-Jordan James (Jr.); F – John Fulkerson (Gr.)
Projected bench: G – Santiago Vescovi (Jr.); G – Jahmai Mashack (Fr.); F – Brandon Huntley-Hatfield (Fr.); F – Jonas Aidoo (Fr.); C – Uros Plavsic (Jr.)
Strengths: Depth; nice mix of vets and potential one-and-dones; guard play; defense
Weaknesses: Streaky shooting; size on the perimeter
Best player: Chandler
Breakout player: Powell