Tennessee’s basketball team is coming off its best two-year stretch in school history, totaling 57 wins in the last two seasons.
Gone from last year’s team is All-American Grant Williams and All-SEC selections Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone, along with over 70 percent of Tennessee’s scoring.
“I don’t know if I have a grasp other than the fact it’s been a fun team to be around and a fun team to coach,” head coach Rick Barnes said. “They’re working the direction that we want to go. We still have a lot of young guys that are still learning the details of some things, but their attitudes have been terrific.”
What Tennessee does have returning is a pair of talented senior guards in Lamonté Turner and Jordan Bowden.
Turner has earned a reputation as a big shot-maker in his last two years in Knoxville as he’s averaged 10.9 points in each of the last two seasons.
Bowden has played as less of a primary scoring option in his first three seasons, but the Knoxville native still averaged 10.6 points per game last season while shooting 38 percent from three.
“He’s one of those guys that very seldom has a bad day and he’s somebody that you pretty much know what you’re going to get,” Barnes said of Bowden.
Rounding out the starting backcourt for the Vols will likely be Josiah-Jordan James, as the McDonald’s All-American continues to work back from a hip injury that plagued him this fall.
James was the highest rated recruit that Tennessee has signed in the Rick Barnes era and the 6-foot-6-inch freshman will look to immediately help Tennessee on both ends of the court.
James is one of the six newcomers on this Tennessee team. The Vols will need production from many of them this season, and Barnes and the players have been pleased with the energy and willingness to learn the team has shown.
"They've adapted to the culture of Tennessee," junior Yves Pons said. "They've put the work in. This is a hard-working team, one of the best teams in the nation. So we have a big expectation for every new guy."
“We’ve got enough guys back who have really showed terrific leadership,” Barnes said. “I think they’ve helped these guys (newcomers) from the time they stepped on campus in June, really helped them.”
Jalen Johnson and Davontae Gaines will come off the bench this season in the backcourt and will be expected to play major minutes for the Vols.
Tennessee’s post play is perhaps its biggest weakness going into the season. The Vols lost four interior players to the NBA or transfer portal.
The Vols’ front court took another hit this weekend when Arizona State transfer Uroš Plavšić was ruled ineligible by the NCAA.
“Well I think we’re all disappointed,” Barnes said. “Uroš is a wonderful kid. He’s been really patient with it. There is another avenue that we’re exploring. You have some appeals that you can do, so we do have an appeal left.”
The loss is a big one for the Vols who will now need redshirt-junior John Fulkerson to make a big jump in his game.
Fulkerson, a Kingsport, Tennessee, native, averaged 3.1 points and 2.6 rebounds a game last season.
Behind him the Vols will lean on Zack Kent and freshman Olivier Nkamhoua. Tennessee has also moved junior Yves Pons to the interior to help provide depth.
Tennessee will look to counteract the lack of interior size with length, as the Vols have multiple players who can guard multiple positions.
“You got to go with what you have, and it’s up to us as coaches to put guys in positions that they can be successful,” Barnes said. “We’re not afraid to size down and play with what would probably look like a guard lineup. We’ll do whatever we have to do and whatever the situation calls for.”
“I think Yves Pons can guard five positions as well as anybody in the country,” Barnes said. “I really believe that. Josiah’s length and size will help do that. One thing about it, if you go that route, they’ve got to guard you on the other end, too. We’d obviously have to help each other a lot in that situation. Rebounding would become paramount to make sure we’re not giving up a lot on the glass.”
Depth will be a concern for the Vols all season. Tennessee only has 10 scholarship players eligible, but the top of the roster has them confident they can compete for another SEC championship.
“We can be one of the best in the SEC,” Jordan Bowden said. “Just continue to work at it in practice, continue the details, the small details in it, but you have to want to play defense to be in this league. … Defense wins games.”