Without a deep run in the SEC Tournament that was canceled last week due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Tennessee basketball team was set to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in since 2017.
The Vols were expected to take a step back this season after losing four starters from 2019’s 31-win squad. Gone were All-SEC contributors Jordan Bone and Admiral Schofield as well as All-American Grant Williams.
Many viewed the season as a bridge year for Rick Barnes’ program. The Vols weren’t expected to compete for championships with all that was lost. With a top five recruiting class coming in for the 2020-21 season, including five stars Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, a NCAA Tournament bid was the expectation for the 2019-20 Vols.
Tennessee was right outside the top 25 in the inaugural polls and was picked to finish fifth in the SEC. So how did Tennessee miss the big dance? There’s a plethora of factors.
You have to start with the production Tennessee got out of who was projected to be its lead scorers.
Lamonté Turner was a preseason Second Team All-SEC selection after playing a major role in his sophomore and junior seasons, averaging 10.9 and 11 points respectively in those two seasons.
Turner struggled to get going during his senior campaign as his shot struggled due to a lingering shoulder injury. The Alabama native shot just 23% from 3-point range before having season ending shoulder surgery in late December.
Even with his shooting struggles Turner was a catastrophic loss. Turner was playing heavy minutes at the point guard spot, creating most of the Vols’ offense while averaging 7.1 assists while being Tennessee’s best perimeter defender.
After Turner’s season ending injury the Vols looked lost getting blown out at home to Wisconsin in what Barnes later called the low point in his tenure in Knoxville.
Barnes midseason addition of Santiago Vescovi, and the Uruguay native’s ability to play immediately, saved the Vols' season. Vescovi wasn’t as productive as Turner would have been, but he stabilized Tennessee, giving them a point guard while averaging 10.7 points and 3.7 assists in 19 games.
Knoxville native Jordan Bowden was the other returning Vol expected to carry the load on offense. After averaging 10.6 points per game as a junior Bowden was expected to take step forward as a senior.
Like Turner, Bowden’s shot struggled in his senior campaign. After shooting 39% and 40% from 3-point range the two previous years, Bowden shot just 29% from deep as a senior.
The former Carter High School standout did a lot of other things well for Tennessee in 2020, scoring 13.7 points per game while becoming a lockdown defender, but the Vols needed his 3-point shot clicking to help space an offense that struggled to shoot from beyond the arc.
Perhaps the biggest development for Tennessee in 2020 was the growth of its front court. Yves Pons shined in his transition to power forward earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors while leading the SEC with 73 blocks.
The junior also improved his outside shot, shooting 36% from 3-point range, while averaging 10.8 points and 5.4 rebounds a game.
John Fulkerson was perhaps the SEC’s most improved player while earning Second Team All-SEC recognition. Fulkerson went from averaging 3.1 points and 2.6 rebounds a game as a sophomore to 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds as a junior. Even more impressively Fulkerson averaged just over 15 points a contest in SEC play.
Tennessee improved rapidly in conference play, especially on the offensive end, when the Vols started to play inside out and run their offense through Fulkerson. The ever-changing eligible roster made it difficult for the Vols to find a rhythm until late in the season.
Another tough break for Tennessee this season was the nagging injuries plaguing five-star freshman Josiah-Jordan James. The South Carolina native missed all of preseason practice and four SEC games while also playing banged up most of the season.
James flashed at times including big games at Kentucky and against Memphis and Florida. Consistency, however, wasn’t his strength and the Vols didn’t get quite as much production, 7.4 points and 5.5 rebounds, as expected.
Perhaps Tennessee’s biggest flaw though was its lack of depth. In SEC play the Vols struggled to find minutes from its bench. Jalen Johnson was a reliable player, but he wasn’t going to stuff the stat sheet. Davonte Gaines also flashed at times carving a role with his hard-nosed defense and gritty play.
Tennessee got no production from its bench post players in conference play. Poor roster management decisions by Barnes allowed Derrick Walker and DJ Burns to transfer. Instead the Vols rolled with Zach Kent, who transferred in December due to lack of playing time, and transfer Uros Plavsic, who struggled mightily in his first season in Knoxville.
Walker sat out this season at Nebraska while Burns averaged 12 points, helping Winthrop reach the NCAA Tournament. While there was some off the court factors that led to Burns’ departure, the Vols would’ve been in a better place with those two on the roster.
However, even with its lack of depth and star power Barnes got his roster playing well with the end result being greater than the sum of its parts. With all the adversity this team faced and all it lost from the season before the Vols easily could have tanked this season.
In the end, Tennessee finished with a 17-14 record including a 9-9 conference record that was good for eighth in the SEC. The Vols were set to make the NIT before the sudden end to the season and if it weren’t for late game collapses at Auburn and South Carolina may have found themselves in the big dance.
It was an up-and-down year for Vol hoops. Losses to Texas A&M, Memphis and Georgia stung, but Tennessee also got big wins over Florida and at No. 6 Kentucky.
With Bowden and Turner being the only departing seniors, and the highly touted incoming freshman class the Vols should be back in the NCAA Tournament next season while also having a chance to compete for a SEC title.
In CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein’s early top 45 for the 2020-21 season Tennessee comes in at No. 15, the second highest ranked team in the SEC.
It was a rollercoaster season for the Vols, one that would have disappointingly not ended in the NCAA Tournament, but things could have gone much worse for the Big Orange this season, and early signs point to a resurgence next year.