Despite the abrupt ending, this season was a bit of a disappointing campaign for the Tennessee men’s basketball team. Finishing with a 17–14 (9–9 SEC) record, the Vols took a big step back following their Sweet Sixteen team last year and their SEC championship the year before that.
Here’s how Tennessee graded out for the season.
The frontcourt was the driving force for the team this year and Yves Pons and John Fulkerson were the reason. The two players stepped up big this year with the loss of four starters to the NBA and G-League. Last season Pons and Fulkerson were the seventh and eighth men on the roster and this season Fulkerson was the team’s best player, earning second team All-SEC honors, while Pons was arguably the second-best player.
Fulkerson and Pons were crucial rocks for the Vols throughout the season. As the team faced adversity and instability at the guard positions, the duo gave Tennessee coach Rick Barnes consistent contributions. In an era that is increasingly guard-focused, it was often the frontcourt that led the Vols to success.
Coming into the season the duo of Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner was expected to lead the team after the two rotated stating and being the sixth man last season, but both players faced difficulty this season. Turner had to medically cut his season short in December while Bowden had a multiple-game streak where he could not find his shot on the offensive end of the floor. However, throughout his offensive slump Bowden continued to play very well on the defensive end.
Josiah-Jordan James was expected to be crucial part Barnes’ plans, but injuries derailed much of James’ season. His play in the final few weeks should excite Tennessee fans, as he showed that when he is healthy, he can play like many expected him to at the beginning of the season.
Coming in the mid-year break, Santiago Vescovi was crucial for the Vols in filling in the role left behind by Turner’s early exit. The freshman only had three practices before his first start, but he was a major contributor from the beginning. In his first few games, Vescovi struggled with turnovers and other mistakes that come with the adjustment to the speed of the college game. However, within a few weeks, Vescovi had eliminated many of the turnovers.
Tennessee shot the ball well generally throughout the season. There were times when certain players went through periods of not shooting well, but it usually was not a team wide problem. The most notable example of this was when Bowden experienced a four-game shooting drought. Similarly, James struggled to get points in the games where he was not totally healthy.
On the positive side, Fulkerson appeared to have a lot more confidence in his shot than last season. In the same way, Pons developed a three-point shot in the offseason, which was crucial during unstable times at the guard positions.
The Vols’ defense was not their strong suit this season, as their inability to control a lead lost them the first Auburn game and nearly lost them the Florida game and second Vanderbilt game. In all three games, Tennessee had sizable leads early in the second half, but due to poor defense all three teams came back in the closing minutes.
Although in the Kentucky series, the Vols actually played above their normal defensive quality. In the first game held in Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee couldn’t overcome the Wildcats’ talent, but in the second game in Rupp Arena, the Vols were able to sufficiently slow Kentucky to get the win.
The top player off the bench was Jalen Johnson, who actually broke into the starting lineup at one point due to injuries. The junior provided a reliable spark off the bench from his position as the sixth man and was a key contributor on both ends of the court. Also key off the bench was Devonte Gaines, who started one game during the interregnum between Turner and Vescovi. Gaines was one of Tennessee’s best hustle players despite his small frame that will surely increase as he spends more time in a collegiate strength program.
Other players off the bench were Olivier Khamhoua and Uros Plavsic. Khamhoua saw his minutes decrease during conference time, but the freshman maintained that he trusted Barnes’ decision to limit minutes to help the team. Plavsic, the subject of the ‘Free Uros’ movement, disappointed fans once he was declared eligible by the NCAA. The seven-footer appeared to struggle to adjust to the speed of the SEC.
Barnes’ team has seen a lot of ups and down this season. The Vols came short of what many expected for them, but they faced many challenges that were unforeseen. Barnes himself was left was a very young team and lost one of the players who was supposed to be his senior leader. The thing that plagued this team was inconsistency, something that can be expected from youth. Barnes has built the equity for fans to trust his coaching ability, so this this year shouldn’t damage his reputation much, but it gives fans something to watch out for next year if inconstancy is a problem again.
This team definitely struggled for portions of this season, but things were trending in the right direction and it seemed Tennessee had figured out hat they need to succeed. It is likely the Vols could have been a dangerous team in the NIT if it had gone on, but that will be a question Tennessee fans will not get answered.