Tennessee disappointed in the 2020-21 season, scuffling down the stretch after climbing as No. 6 in the polls in January. The Vols’ rollercoaster season hit its lowest depth in the NCAA Tournament as 12th-seeded Oregon State upset Tennessee in the first round.
So where does Tennessee go from here?
Head coach Rick Barnes is entering the most critical offseason of his Tennessee tenure as he looks to reshape his roster heading into his seventh season in Knoxville. The turnover won’t just be limited to the roster as Barnes will have to replace at least one member of his coaching staff.
Kim English is the new head coach at George Mason, starting his head coaching career at the same place Barnes did 33 years ago. English is a major loss as he earned the reputation as a bright basketball mind and energetic recruiter in his two years in Knoxville.
“We were in the NCAA Tournament and our guys were shooting around,” English said in his introductory press conference. “We were hanging out at the table. (Barnes) was looking at his phone, Zooming in and saying this is Braddock Road. This used to be this. I don’t know what it looks like now. When you want to go recruit in Richmond, you take 123 and take it south. You hit 95. He was giving me this quick little history on Fairfax and Mason. He is so excited.”
While English is the only Vol assistant to leave to date, Desmond Oliver has been a rumored head coach candidate at Austin Peay.
The need to replace one, or potentially two coaches, is always important but even more so due to the roster turnover that Tennessee is staring down.
So just how much different could the roster look next season?
Due to NCAA COVID-19 relief rules, 2021 seniors can receive an extra year of eligibility without counting against the 13 scholarship limit. Tennessee had three seniors last season (Yves Pons, John Fulkerson, E.J. Anosike), and while Anosike is returning and Fulkerson could too, the Vols will have all three of their scholarships to fill.
Tennessee has currently had two players transfer (Davonte Gaines and Drew Pember) and one player declare for the NBA Draft (Jaden Springer). So, as of right now, Tennessee has six scholarships to fill and that likely will almost certainly expand as Keon Johnson is a projected lottery pick and suspected to leave for the NBA Draft. It’s also very possible that another Vol transfers but that hasn’t happened as of now right now, so we will work off the assumption that Tennessee has seven scholarships to fill.
The Vols have already filled two spots, signing five-star point guard Kennedy Chandler and four-star shooting guard Jahmai Mashack in the fall, leaving Tennessee with five spots to fill.
Tennessee’s focus appears to be on big men, where Tennessee had very little depth this past season, and shooters, another area Tennessee struggled.
While both are important, Tennessee’s offense faltered this past season without having a post scorer for the first time in four seasons. When asked about changing his offensive philosophy, Barnes rejected the idea, focusing on the need to get interior scoring back.
With Pons gone and Fulkerson questionable to return, it becomes incredibly important for Tennessee to add instant impact post players.
“We've got to have an inside presence. We've never had some kind of an inside presence,” Barnes said. “We've got to change -- again, going forward, we've got to get back to having an inside presence the way that we play and the way that we want to play.”
In the transfer portal Tennessee has reached out to a plethora of targets. Tennessee recruited North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler out of high school and are pursuing the 7-footer now, but competition appears stiff for the former five-star.
Tennessee has also reportedly reached out to transfers Jayden Gardner (Eastern Carolina), Qudus Wahab (Georgetown), N’Faly Dante (Oregon) and Dallas Walton (Colorado).
Gardner, a 6-foot-7 power forward, seems to have the most smoke to Tennessee right now. Gardner talked to the Knoxville News Sentinel’s Mike Wilson, saying there’s “great interest” from both sides. The North Carolina native averaged 18.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game for the Pirates last season.
At guard the options have been a bit more limited with Tennessee reportedly reaching out to Noah Locke (Florida), Justin Powell (Auburn) and Tyreke Key (Indiana State).
While the Vols don’t seem active recruiting the 2021 high school recruiting class, don’t rule out the Vols adding more prep prospects, whether that be 2021 recruits or 2022 recruits who look to reclassify into 2021.
The offseason is full of questions for Tennessee. The one definite is that the Vols’ roster will look quite a bit different than it did this winter.