Tennessee Basketball: A budding powerhouse positioned to strike

Tennessee basketball burst into the national spotlight in the early 2000s under the leadership of then-head coach Bruce Pearl, making NCAA Tournament appearances in each of his six years with the program. Some struggles inevitably occurred following Pearl’s firing due to an NCAA investigation, but the hiring of Rick Barnes before 2014-15 has changed the trajectory of the program in a big way. The Vols missed the Big Dance in his first two seasons but broke into the Top 15 in back-to-back years after.

That dominant two-year stretch was headlined by stars such as Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Jordan Bone. And while 2019-20 meant a step backward with those three leaving, don’t expect the Volunteers to stay down for long. In fact, Coach Barnes has this program looking like a powerhouse in the making with elite recruiting recently. Fans in Knoxville are going to need to upgrade their sunglasses to see the future clearly – it’s that bright.

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Jokes aside, Tennessee looks poised to emerge as one of the best teams in the nation over the foreseeable future. As is always the case with budding superpowers, that starts with this upcoming season. For the Vols, the combination of returners and five-star freshmen will lead the resurgence after one down year.

After all, perhaps the biggest reason for Tennessee sliding to No. 68 in last season’s final KenPom rankings last year was starting point guard Lamonte Turner ending his career due to a shoulder injury. The team suffered without its experienced floor general.

Sophomores appear poised for breakouts.

Those struggles, though, could be exactly why the Volunteers will take the giant leap into national title contention this season. Coach Barnes turned to freshmen Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi in Turner’s absence and while both made mistakes, those “growing pains” set them up for big-time campaigns in 2020-21. The two rising sophomores were highly regarded out of high school and now boast the experience needed to take the next step.

Vescovi, most notably, will be the primary ball-handler and playmaker throughout the year. The Uruguayan product only joined the Volunteers at the start of conference play during his freshman year, but he started all 19 games from that point on. Despite essentially being thrown into the fire, Vescovi he showed himself worthy of being regarded as a future star with his downhill attacking and 3-point stroke. He averaged 10.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.2 steals per game, shooting 36.0 percent from beyond the arc in the process.

Coach Barnes is known for deploying highly-efficient offensive units centered around top-tier ball movement leading to quality shots. While the Volunteers still ranked fourth nationally in assists per field goal made last season (62.7%), they were dismal at taking care of the ball (20.5% turnover rate, 280th nationally). Vescovi isn’t the only player that will need to improve in order for Tennessee’s to return to its typical ball-control ways, but he is perhaps the most important in that area.

It is also important to note that backcourt running mate Josiah-Jordan James will also be back in Knoxville. James was a bit underwhelming compared to his five-star status out of high school but oozes potential. He showed flashes of his that possible stardom last season and boasts a great combination of size (6-foot-6) and skill. He will spend this upcoming season playing off the ball alongside Vescovi and that should allow him to thrive.

The big key might simply be increasing his aggression in attacking the basket rather than settling for mid-range jumpers:

Statistics via Hoop-Math.

Vescovi and James are right at the core of the optimism surrounding Tennessee for this season. If they take sophomore leaps, then the Volunteers will return to being a very efficient offensive unit. This confidence is not only based on my belief in the flashes I saw from Vescovi/James last season. Over the past 20+ years, Rick Barnes has proven that he can coach elite offensive units; he’s done so at each of his stops (Clemson, Texas, and Tennessee). I’m expecting a dramatic improvement from Tennessee’s AdjO national ranking of No. 96 last season.

Freshmen studs raise the ceiling.

It also doesn’t hurt that Coach Barnes is bringing in the No. 4 recruiting class in the country. This group, which features four commits, is headlined by a pair of five-star wings Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson. While there is likely only one starting guard spot available alongside Vescovi/James, these two will most assuredly both fill big roles regardless of who is on the floor for opening tips. Their additions will be huge to help offset the graduation of Jordan Bowden, who started every game last season.

Springer is the slightly higher-rated of the two and the one that most expect to land the starting job. He has plenty of size (6-foot-4), is a three-level scorer, and is a solid playmaker at either backcourt slot. He is particularly adept at getting to the basket, especially as the PnR ball-handler, and finishes through or around contact.

Perhaps most notably, Springer could be one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation. His combination of strength, agility, and length allows him to constantly stay in front of opposing guards. He is also unafraid of the challenge of picking up difficult matchups, as he shows here against the nation’s No. 1 recruit:

Considering Vescovi’s biggest issues are all on the defensive end of the floor, having a top-tier stopper like Springer alongside him can help to cover those weaknesses.

Keon Johnson is similar in his lockdown abilities on the defensive end, though not quite as physically strong as Springer. Johnson plays more like a true wing at 6-foot-5 with long arms and is an elite-tier athlete. Most eminently, he uses his explosiveness to convert challenging attempts at the basket and is a terror in transition. Understanding how to read defenses to decide between driving or dishing can be a difficult concept, but Johnson takes decisive action on the fastbreak. He is about as well-balanced as they come.

Both of these studs are in line for starter-like minutes. In terms of immediate fit with Tennessee, Springer and Johnson are high-level defenders with excellent passing ability on the other end of the floor; Coach Barnes will utilize them well. At least one, if not both, will be “one-and-done” after this season.

And while they are the headliners, we could also see Corey Walker crack the rotation as another incoming freshman. The 6-foot-8 forward is ranked as the No. 76 overall recruit nationally and would be a depth piece behind experienced vets in the frontcourt. He likely will not see big minutes but could be a versatile fourth or fifth man off the bench.

Two-sport athlete Malachi Wideman (No. 175 overall hoops recruit) is also joining the mix. He plans on playing both football and basketball at the collegiate level.

Pons + Fulkerson = A dominant senior frontcourt

Most of Tennessee’s hype will center around its youngsters, but there are plenty of solid veterans to mention as well. In fact, I’d argue that the Volunteers feature the most underrated upperclassmen in the entire nation. Yves Pons and John Fulkerson, most importantly, form a senior starting frontcourt capable of controlling the game on either end of the floor. Both experienced breakout campaigns a year ago with increased playing time and are now proven stars.

With Pons, Tennessee is bringing back the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year. A shot-blocking fiend at 6-foot-6 that can defend multiple positions, he will be the anchor for a defensive unit that I think will be among the best in the entire nation. In addition to his standout defensive play, Pons showcased more of his offseason game last year as well. He averaged 10.8 points (.489/.349/.638), 5.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per contest.

Returning alongside him is Fulkerson, a talented big man that leaves it all on the court every single night out. The 6-foot-9 forward surprised last season as he upped his scoring average by over 10 points per game. While not a threat to score from deep, he does just about everything else well. He is a dominant post-up threat, a strong rebounder, an able passer, and an intelligent defender. Fulkerson posted 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game on 61.2 percent shooting to earn All-SEC Second Team honors as a junior.

Statistics via Sports-Reference and Evan Miyakawa.

Fulkerson barely received any national recognition last season but was absolutely superb. As shown above, he ranked very high in the SEC in player impact statistics and was especially efficient offensively. Despite the fact that he made just one 3-pointer, he still finished third in the conference in both eFG% and TS%, two percentages that give extra value to made trifectas. If he turns in another season like this one, Tennessee will be in a great place.

Veterans bring quality depth as well.

In addition to the two key returning cogs to the frontcourt, Victor Bailey Jr. (Oregon) and E.J. Anosike (Sacred Heart) are arriving as big-time transfers. These two were both rock-solid at their previous stops and will likely be tasked with filling reserve roles in Knoxville. Don’t get it twisted, though, just because they might be the seventh/eighth men doesn’t mean they won’t make solid impacts. At least eight players have averaged more than 10 minutes per game in each of Tennessee’s first five seasons under Barnes.

Bailey sat out last season due to transfer rules but previously played a solid role at Oregon. During his two campaigns in Eugene, he proved himself to be a reliable 3-point threat (38.3 percent on 206 attempts) and could compete for a starting spot in Knoxville. At the very least, he can help space the floor and bring experience to an otherwise young group of guards.

Anosike, on the other hand, will be the primary reserve behind the Pons/Fulkerson frontcourt. While the jump from the NEC to the SEC is significant, Anosike is a big presence at 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds that is more than physically prepared to handle SEC opponents. He carves out space in the paint with the best of them and can be a valuable glass-cleaner as well. His averages of 15.7 points and 11.6 rebounds per game last season tell that story.

Additionally, his free throw attempt rate ranked first in the NEC (138th nationally); he connected on 72.8 percent of those shots. With Fulkerson – who ranks even better in FTr – and Anosike forming the big man rotation for the Volunteers, this team should force opposing frontcourts into a lot of foul trouble this season.

If any of these main rotation pieces goes down with an injury, some returning sophomores can step up. Seven-footer Uros Plavsic is perhaps the most likely of this group to see consistent playing time due to his size, but the likes of Olivier Nkamhoua, Drew Pember, and Davonte Gaines shouldn’t be completely overlooked either.

Vols’ ceiling in 2020-21? Taking home a chunk of net.

Tennessee boasts a great senior frontcourt, a sophomore guard duo poised for a big jump, two five-star freshmen ready to make their mark, plenty of depth, and a top-tier head coach. To put it simply, their ceiling for this coming season is to be the last team standing at the NCAA Tournament, with someone on top of a ladder cutting down the final nets. Of course, the journey to reaching that end goal will surely be difficult, but the Volunteers have that potential. I have the team pegged at No. 8 spot in my preseason rankings.

The main reason for this optimism is the all-around balance that I expect to see from the team. Not only are they profoundly deep and boast a mix of experience and young talent, but they also have the pieces to dominate on either end of the floor.

With more experienced play out of Vescovi and James, their offensive movement should be substantially better. There are also scoring threats all over their roster to dish the rock to. The Vols should get to the foul line at will and their assist rate should once again rank highly. Coach Barnes knows how to build an offensive juggernaut and while we might not see the Vols reach No. 3 in adjusted offensive efficiency like we did in 2018-19, they should be pretty darn good.

Then, on the defensive end of the floor, the reigning SEC DPOY is back to anchor a unit that added two elite-level on-ball freshmen defenders in Springer and Johnson. Tennessee finished at a respectable 56th nationally in AdjD last season. With their new stars joining an already strong core, a Top 25 finish on this end isn’t out of the question.

Tennessee should be the preseason favorite in the SEC this season. The Volunteers also belong right in the mix as a dark-horse to win the national title.

Recruiting momentum feeds future dominance.

If Tennessee lives up to the hype this season, it will mark the third time in four years where the program has finished in the Top 15. That is no minor achievement and it goes to show what a tremendous job that Rick Barnes has done since taking over. He already has two exceptional seasons under his belt and the team wasn’t all that bad last year considering the offseason losses and Turner’s injury. Looking ahead to the future, it is reasonable to think that the Volunteers will only continue to improve.

There will be the occasional down season, but this is a powerhouse in the making. While Kentucky is likely to remain the unquestioned top dog atop the SEC for the foreseeable future, Tennessee could be a very consistent No. 2. Recent on-court successes, Barnes’ track record at previous schools, and the program’s excellent work on the recruiting trail over the past few years provide the key ingredients.

Rankings via the 247Sports Composite.

Suffice it to say, there is not going to be any shortage of talent in Knoxville anytime soon. How successful the Volunteers are with that talent remains to be seen, but this could be a major turning point for the program…and in a very good way.


Lukas Harkins is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com and covers the nation with rankings, bracketology, analysis, and recruiting breakdowns. He is currently a Rockin’ 25 voter and is credentialed media for Butler. He previously worked as one of the site experts at Busting Brackets. Harkins graduated from Butler University in 2019 and majored in Healthcare and Business.