Tennessee’s highly anticipated 2020-21 basketball season is under a week away. Tennessee associate head coach Mike Schwartz met with the local media via Zoom Thursday to discuss this season’s Vols and the challenges associated with forming a schedule amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first major challenge for Schwartz, who heads up Tennessee’s scheduling effort, was when the NCAA delayed the season two weeks due to the coronavirus.
“The first challenge was when they moved the date,” Schwartz said. “You obviously had games that were between Nov. 10 and Nov. 25, and that was the first piece of the challenge was that you had games that were scheduled and so what do you do with those games? For example, Wisconsin still wanted to figure out a way we could play but we would have to move the dates. There were the challenges of the games that were prior to the new start date that you had to figure out.”
Without the same COVID-19 testing and quarantine procedures in place throughout the NCAA many teams supported the idea of playing non-conference games in a bubble, similar to how the NBA finished its season.
Tennessee was one of the teams that planned to spend time in a bubble, specifically an ESPN sponsored bubble at the Disney resort in Orlando. Those plans fell apart just a month before the official start to the season after schools and ESPN/Disney couldn’t reach an agreement on testing protocols, specifically whether players who had COVID-19 would have to wait three or five months to take COVID-19 tests.
“The biggest challenge, as you eluded to Grant, was the MTE's (Multiple Team Events),” Schwartz said. “When they started moving the MTE's, changing the dates, teams started being able to add teams, teams started dropping out because of all the different medical protocols, that's when it really got complicated to be honest with you. Our approach the whole time was we were going to stick with ESPN, stick with Orlando, regardless of what it was, and we were pretty close to it going out there, and if everything had gone the same way there would have been one other team in the event.”
One of the multiple team events that Tennessee planned to be in Orlando is now in Knoxville as UT will open its season in the first “Volunteer Classic”. The event will include Charlotte and VCU. Penn State was originally set to play in the event when it was going to be played in Orlando but couldn’t come to Knoxville due to scheduling concerns, Schwartz shared Thursday.
On the court, Schwartz has been happy with the team’s progress while players missed practice time this preseason due to COVID-19 and contact tracing.
"We've learned a lot of things,” Schwartz said. “Probably the two biggest things would be, on the defensive side is we have the ability to pressure the ball for as long as we want, as much as we want and we're going to do it. We're going to be a high tempo aggressive and attack minded defensive team, because we have the depth and the athleticism to do that. On the other side of the ball, what we've been able to learn is that we really feel like we have four guys and maybe five guys that can go and get their own shot. Coach has made adjustments to our offense to be able to put them in positions to be able to do that.”
Schwartz talked glowingly about how highly touted freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer would fit into that attacking style of defense, praising their commitment to defense.
The ability for guards to create their own shot and beat opponents off the dribble really isn’t something Barnes has had since his first team at Tennessee when Kevin Punter was a ball dominant scoring guard.
With the return of Coaches’ Preseason First Team All-SEC selections John Fulkerson and Yves Pons it’s hard to imagine the Vols don’t play out of the post this season, but the ability to create shots from the guard spot will be an intriguing boost to Tennessee’s offense.
Despite the positive things he’s seen this preseason, Schwartz still has questions due to the lack of work against other opponents.
"I think we'll know more Wednesday night when that game ends, and the reason I say that is this; we have not had the opportunity to have 13 guys on one bench yet,” Schwartz said. “We've scrimmaged within ourselves four different times, pretty officially with officials and everything. Bottom line is you have seven guys on one bench, six on the other, and there's a lot of things you have to maneuver to be able to make that happen and get a real feel, but it's a totally different story when you have all 13 guys, 15 guys on one bench, and rotation comes into play, fatigue comes into play, scouting report comes into play, so those are things we have not had a chance to really feel yet with this ball club.”
Tennessee usually has a private scrimmage with Davidson and an exhibition game against a division two school before its first game but that wasn’t made possible this season due to COVID-19.
The Vols will tip-off their 2020-21 campaign on Nov. 25 when they host Charlotte to Thompson-Boling