Arkansas at Tennessee

Jan 6, 2021; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Volunteers guard Victor Bailey Jr. (12) and guard Josiah-Jordan James (5) and guard Jaden Springer (11) and forward John Fulkerson (10) and guard Yves Pons (35) during the second half against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Thompson-Boling Arena. 

It’s almost basketball season in Tennessee once again.

This year’s version of Vols basketball, fresh off the heels of a NCAA tournament first round exit to Oregon State, is ready to prove they can make a big impact on the court.

Head coach Rick Barnes and select players were available for questions at Tennessee’s annual preseason media day.

Here are three takeaways from Tuesday’s event.

Newcomers embracing pace of play, change of scenery

Eight new faces will suit up in a Tennessee uniform for the first time this season – seven freshmen and Auburn transfer Justin Powell.

Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, a five-star power forward from IMG Academy in Florida, is a player fans are especially excited about. His size and dominating athleticism could make him a contributor for the Vols on day one.

For Huntley-Hatfield, the transition between levels of play took some getting used to.

“College is different, because the pace of the game is just faster,” Huntley-Hatfield said. “We’re going up and down more, with certain sets we want to run. It forces you to think faster.”

Freshman shooting guard Jahmai Mashack was the most outspoken about his transition from high school to college.

“It’s definitely been harder, an adjustment because high school and college are two completely different games,” Mashack said. “I knew I wasn’t going to ‘get it’ super quick. I know that I’m a good player, I know what I’m capable of, but I know there are little details that I have to learn how to give way to. It’s getting easier, but I’m just trying to do everything I can to cut that learning curve.”

Tennessee endured a lot of turnover in the offseason, losing Keon Johnson, Yves Pons and Jaden Springer to the NBA draft. Freshmen such as Mashack, Huntley-Hatfield and Chandler will play a part in filling those holes, and Barnes feels the coaching staff has put them in a position to do so.

“I think I have the best coaching staff in the country. They have bonded extremely well with the players,” Barnes said. “We can play at a pace that we have been working at and continue that pace. That will determine how much progress each player can make here on out."

Consistency, depth point of emphasis moving forward

Barnes has made focusing on little details a priority throughout preseason practice. Last season’s squad had its share of issues, most of which stemmed from inconsistency.

A Vols team that bested top-25 opponents in 2020 such as Kansas, Colorado and Arkansas before struggling in the tournament against Oregon State and losing in the regular season against Ole Miss will warrant those concerns. This year, Barnes hopes, those inconsistency problems will fade.

“A lot of that had to do with COVID,” Barnes said. “Where I think our consistency will be better is from having a full year with these guys in terms of our normal routine that we do, starting in the spring and then into the summer.”

It’s not like Tennessee has an easier schedule than it did last season, either. The Vols’ third game of the season matches them up against No. 4 Villanova while also facing up against Colorado, Texas Tech and Memphis in December.

Barnes also took some time to address the depth Tennessee has added this offseason and the mix of familiar and new faces to the roster.

“We have gotten full numbers right now from where we started,” Barnes said. “From the addition of some guys, Zakai (Zeigler) coming in late and certainly with our 7-8 new players coming in and the older guys doing what we have asked them to do in terms of leadership.”

“It has been a really healthy competitive situation, and we are going to have to have that throughout the year. If we do what we like to do, we expect to go very deep into our bench.”

Barnes, players “excited” to welcome fans back to Thompson-Boling Arena

Super senior John Fulkerson was quick to address his excitement of playing in a packed arena once again after a season enduring fan restrictions the year prior.

“The fans play a huge role, I’m really excited to have them back in TBA," Fulkerson said. “Last year was so different, so I’m really looking forward to this year and hopefully a packed house every night.”

Barnes held a similar sentiment.

“We are really excited to welcome our fans back – last year really was not the same,” Barnes said. “Our fan base is really one of the most powerful home court arenas in the country, and we are excited about that.”

Tennessee missed out on that powerful advantage last year, one where a game was never guaranteed in a world that seemed completely different. With new guidelines in place, Tennessee basketball can expect to return to a sense of normalcy starting Saturday in Tennessee’s exhibition matchup against Barnes’ alma mater – Lenoir-Rhyne.

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