Head coach Rick Barnes and the Tennessee men’s basketball program experienced quite the roller coaster ride last season as they soared above preseason expectations.
With the magnifying glass of the college basketball world now fixated on them, the No. 6 Vols head into Wednesday’s exhibition matchup against the Tusculum Pioneers with the same motive.
“The biggest thing is we want to see is effort on both ends,” Barnes said. “We want to keep guys fresh and get the right combinations out there that utilize everybody’s strengths.”
Barnes is no stranger to college basketball, having recorded a career record of 661-358, including a 57-44 mark at Tennessee since arriving before the 2015-16 season. After recording a 26-win campaign a year ago, the Vols will be looking to build on that as outside expectations continue to grow.
That journey begins with the Pioneers on Wednesday, and despite the overwhelming sense of favoritism surrounding it, Tennessee is not taking this matchup lightly.
“We don’t know anything about Tusculum but we feel we’ll play against a lot of matchup zone,” Barnes said. “We’re going to be more concerned about ourselves and what we need to do.”
Boasting a roster that includes reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and a proven All-SEC wing in Admiral Schofield, its Tennessee’s depth that will be on full display Wednesday.
While Barnes may have one of the most experienced rosters in college basketball heading into the new year, developing a rotation that benefits each players’ skill set has yet to be determined as Tennessee attempts to integrate some new pieces.
“We’re probably going to look at 10 guys and go that way with it,” Barnes said. “The key will be trying to figure out the rotation and the way games play out can change some of that.”
Tennessee is 77-18 all-time in exhibition matchups and is currently in the midst of a 19-game winning streak in those contests. The Vols are 8-0 under Barnes in those games, and will be looking to add to that total against a team that is learning its way under first year head coach J.T. Burton.
While Burton holds a .617 career win-percentage, the Pioneers will have their hands full with a Tennessee roster that is returning 90 percent of its scoring from last year, which ranks sixth-most among power five programs.
With the exception of injured forward Zach Kent, Barnes foresees the entire Tennessee roster being available as the Vols unofficially begin their quest for NCAA Tournament redemption.
“Yeah, right now [they are,]” Barnes said. “The training staff hasn’t told me otherwise.”
Barnes also discussed the improvement of the backcourt over the offseason, a factor that was somewhat of question mark in terms of depth following the departure of James Daniel in the off-season.
A group that includes Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden and Co-SEC Sixth Man of the Year Lamonte Turner, Tennessee will be looking to turn heads with this group when regular season play begins.
“We look at all three of those guys and they can play on and off the ball,” Barnes said. “That’s an area that we can really continue to get better in as the year goes on.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. ET at Thompson-Boling Arena and can be seen on the SEC Network+.