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Can Robert Hubbs III finally deliver for Tennessee?

Rick Barnes has stabilized Tennessee’s basketball program. Now comes the rebuild.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Louisiana State vs Tennessee Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

Since the late, great Ray Mears retired in 1977, Tennessee has made the NCAA Tournament 17 times in 39 years, and they’ve won 50.6% of their SEC games. So basically an average SEC program, right? But that’s not exactly true; the Vols have rarely been average. The Vols made five straight NCAA Tournaments from 1979-83; four straight between 1998-01; and six straight from 2006-11. And each of those three stretches included an SEC title.

They also made the NCAA Tournament just once between 1984 and 1997. They missed four straight years from 2002-05, and they’ve made it just once since 2011. Don DeVoe started hot and then faded in the latter half of his tenure, but the rest have corresponded with coaching changes: Jerry Green and Bruce Pearl made the tournament every year in Knoxville; Wade Houston, Kevin O’Neill, Buzz Peterson, and Donnie Tyndall never made the tournament.

So if the pattern holds, Tennessee won’t make the NCAA Tournament under Rick Barnes.

Barnes’ first season in Knoxville was nothing to write home about. The Volunteers had a fairly average offense but couldn’t play defense worth a lick; largely because they were undersized, Tennessee ranked 12th in the conference in effective field goal percentage defense and 13th in defensive rebounding. For Barnes, it was the first time since Ken Pomeroy started doing this in 2002 that he’s fielded a team that ranked outside the top 100 nationally in defensive efficiency.

And, well, let’s just say that that had to do with the team he inherited.

In 2013, Cuonzo Martin recruited a class ranked 34th in the country (8th in the SEC), but three of the four players in that class left the program after a year. In 2014, Martin’s entire recruiting class bailed when Martin took the Cal job. New coach Donnie Tyndall did a nice job scrambling to put together the SEC’s 9th-best recruiting class (40th nationally), but it depended heavily on some JUCO guys who are already gone (Kevin Punter and Devon Baulkman), while three of the four freshmen recruits were gone after a year.

And now, Rick Barnes is left to deal with the aftereffects of what were essentially two straight lost recruiting classes. Barnes brought in a six-man recruiting class ranked 48th nationally by 247 Sports (7th in the SEC.) That’s not a great ranking for a six-man recruiting class, and in terms of average player rating it’s 10th in the SEC. But it’s probably fair to give Barnes some benefit of the doubt here: you don’t win 619 games over 29 years (28 of them at power-conference schools) if you don’t know what you’re doing. The Volunteers are still a bit undersized, but Barnes did add some help inside and he’s a proven defensive coach who can put together a strong defense if the personnel is right.

But with just over half of Tennessee’s minutes and scoring gone from last season, the offense might take a step back in 2016-17. Kevin Punter, who averaged 22.2 ppg a year ago and was a big portion of the offense, is now graduated. So are three other seniors in Armani Moore, Derek Reese, and Devon Baulkman. The good news is that the attrition that’s characterized the last couple of years for the Volunteers has mostly stopped, with little-used Ray Kasongo being the only departure who had eligibility remaining.

In short, Barnes stabilized the program in his first year, and now it’s time to start building. Barnes is pretty clearly playing the long game here: while he did bring in one graduate transfer, the rest of the incoming players are all freshmen. This year’s Tennessee team will have seven freshmen and three sophomores.

What it all means is that Barnes is trading losses now for more long-term upside. The fact that the team is probably going to stink this year isn’t really Barnes’ fault; this season is more or less about figuring out how all the pieces fit together for the future.

Backcourt

Tennessee Backcourt
# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG SPG WS Notes
Kevin Punter 34.1 22.2 3.4 3.5 2.5 1.4 4.1
Devon Baulkman 27.4 9.5 3.4 1.8 1.3 1.0 2.0
3 Robert Hubbs III 6’5” 207 SR. 0.9911 26.7 10.6 3.9 1.3 0.7 0.4 1.9
15 Detrick Mostella 6’1” 179 JR. 0.9540 19.6 8.4 2.2 1.2 1.4 0.3 0.8
25 Shembari Phillips 6’3” 192 SO. 0.8346 16.2 5.4 1.8 1.0 1.4 0.2 0.5
0 Jordan Bone 6’1” 173 FR. 0.8835
1 Lamonte Turner 6’0” 187 FR. 0.9059 Redshirted 2015-16
12 Kwe Parker 6’0” 181 FR. 0.8833
13 Jalen Johnson 6’5” 177 FR. 0.9025
23 Jordan Bowden 6’3” 180 FR. 0.8376

Over the past few years, Tennessee previews seem to always begin with “if Robert Hubbs lives up to his potential…” The 6’5” senior from Newbern, Tennessee, has tantalized, but he’s never managed to put together a complete season in a Volunteers uniform. As a freshman, he was sidelined after 12 games with a shoulder injury. As a sophomore, he averaged 7.2 ppg while ceding most of the scoring burden to then-senior Josh Richardson.

And as a junior last year, Hubbs reminded everyone why he was once a five-star recruit… at times. He scored in double figures in seven of Tennessee’s first eight SEC games… and then he lost his starting job. He went for 20 points in a win over Auburn and 19 in a win over LSU; in between, he went for 2 and 4 points in losses to Missouri and Kentucky, respectively. Late in the season, he found his way into Barnes’ doghouse and didn’t play at all in losses to Arkansas and Vanderbilt, then played six minutes in the regular-season finale against Ole Miss. And then he came back to score 19 in a loss to LSU in the SEC Tournament. But Hubbs is the closest thing to a consistent, proven scorer Tennessee has on the roster. And that’s kind of a frightening thought.

And if Tennessee doesn’t know what it’s going to get from Hubbs, it really doesn’t know what it’s going to get from the other guards. Detrick Mostella, like Hubbs, is a former highly-touted recruit who’s struggled to find consistency in two years in Knoxville. The 6’1” junior from Decatur, Alabama, averaged 8.4 ppg as a sophomore, albeit with a 45.2 percent effective field goal percentage. That is, needless to say, not very good. Shembari Phillips, a 6’3” sophomore from Atlanta, came on strong toward the end of the season; after playing sparingly through much of December and January, Phillips scored in double figures six times in Tennessee’s last nine regular-season games. But then he scored 2 points and played 20 minutes in Tennessee’s SEC Tournament games against Vanderbilt and LSU.

Behind Mostella and Phillips, Barnes has Jordan Bowden, a 6’3” freshman from Knoxville. Bowden was ranked as the 309th-best recruit in the country but did have offers from Marquette, Providence, Cincinnati, and Utah. Jalen Johnson, a 6’5” lefty slasher from Durham, North Carolina, is the Volunteers’ highest-rated recruit (per 247 Sports) and could push for playing time on the wing.

What about ball handlers? With Punter gone, Tennessee has three options at the point, and they’re all freshmen. Lamonte Turner, a 6’0” redshirt freshman from Florence, Alabama, will probably get the first crack at minutes at the position. Turner was a four-star recruit coming out of high school per ESPN and probably has the most upside of the three players; he missed last season due to an academic issue. But if Turner’s not up to the task, the Vols have two more freshmen that Barnes can try at the point.

Jordan Bone, a 6’1” freshman from Nashville, is the younger brother of former Vol Josh Bone, while Kwe Parker, a 6’0” freshman from Fayetteville, North Carolina, is more of a combo guard. If there’s good news here, it’s that while Barnes doesn’t have a proven point guard, he at least has multiple options to look at. But it’s hardly ideal to go into the season with only three freshmen available to run the offense.

Frontcourt

Tennessee Frontcourt
# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG BPG WS Notes
Armani Moore 32.7 12.2 7.6 4.1 2.6 1.6 2.4
Derek Reese 19.2 3.1 5.4 0.9 0.5 0.6 1.7
Jabari McGhee 10.8 3.8 3.2 0.0 0.2 0.5 0.3 Transfer (Western Kentucky)
Ray Kasongo 5.5 1.4 1.5 0.0 0.3 0.3 0.3 Transfer (Iowa State)
5 Admiral Schofield 6’4” 238 SO. 0.8377 18.7 7.6 4.0 0.9 0.7 0.3 1.9
11 Kyle Alexander 6’10” 218 SO. 0.8329 12.2 1.7 3.2 0.1 0.5 1.0 0.8
21 Lew Evans 6’7” 235 SR. NR 21.4 8.4 5.6 0.9 1.8 0.2 1.6 Transfer (Utah State)
2 Grant Williams 6’5” 234 FR. 0.8754
10 John Fulkerson 6’7” 203 FR. 0.8602

This was the trouble spot for the Volunteers in 2015-16: with little size available, the Vols ranked 12th in the SEC in effective field goal percentage defense and 13th in defensive rebounding. Rick Barnes frequently fielded great defenses at Texas, but with little available to work with, the Volunteers ranked 151st in the country – and 13th in the SEC – in defensive efficiency last year.

Any hope for improvement in the paint starts with Kyle Alexander. Alexander, a 6’10” sophomore from Milton, Ontario, played just 12.2 minutes a night as a freshman but still managed to average a block per night. If Alexander can keep up that pace, he could become a defensive force in the paint with increased playing time. His offensive game, on the other hand, is a work in progress to put it nicely: in SEC play, Alexander averaged 1.8 ppg and shot just 43.5 percent from the floor – pretty bad for a guy who was mostly taking chip shots.

Alongside Alexander, fellow sophomore Admiral Schofield is solidly built at 6’4” and 238 pounds (Aside: Tennessee appears to be measuring its players barefoot, unlike most teams, so their players’ listed heights may appear smaller than they actually are. A lot of teams would probably list Schofield at 6’6” and Alexander at 7’0”). Like Phillips in the backcourt, Schofield’s playing time increased as the season wore on and he scored in double figures in each of Tennessee’s last six games. While he shot just 30 percent from beyond the arc, his 90 percent free throw shooting suggests he’s capable of better than that. He’s also a strong rebounder and should function as an undersized four for the Volunteers.

While Barnes mostly added freshmen in the offseason, he did add some experience in the form of 6’7” senior Lew Evans, a graduate transfer from Utah State who averaged 8.4 ppg and 5.6 rpg for the Aggies. 6’7” freshman John Fulkerson, a local product from Kingsport, Tennessee, adds some much-needed size and depth to the frontcourt, though his minutes may be limited as he adjusts to the college game. Fulkerson had scholarship offers from Clemson and Georgia.

Barnes dipped into North Carolina heavily for his first recruiting class; in addition to Fulkerson, who prepped in North Carolina, Tennessee also has Grant Williams, a 6’5” power forward from Charlotte. Williams is another wide body who could contribute immediately.

Schedule

Tennessee Basketball Schedule
Date Opponent Time (ET) TV
11/3 Slippery Rock (exh.) 7:00 PM SEC Network+
11/11 Chattanooga 7:00 PM SEC Network+
11/15 Appalachian State 7:00 PM SEC Network
11/21-23 Maui Invitational (Lahaina, HI)
12/3 Georgia Tech 1:00 PM SEC Network+
12/6 Presbyterian 7:00 PM SEC Network+
12/11 at North Carolina 5:00 PM ESPN
12/13 Tennessee Tech 7:00 PM SEC Network
12/15 Lipscomb 7:00 PM SEC Network+
12/18 vs. Gonzaga (Nashville, TN) 4:00 PM ESPN2
12/22 at East Tennessee State 7:00 PM ESPN3
12/29 at Texas A&M 9:00 PM SEC Network
1/3 Arkansas 6:30 PM SEC Network
1/7 at Florida 5:15 PM ESPN2
1/11 South Carolina 6:30 PM SEC Network
1/14 at Vanderbilt 8:30 PM SEC Network
1/17 at Ole Miss 9:00 PM SEC Network
1/21 Mississippi State 6:00 PM SEC Network
1/24 Kentucky 9:00 PM ESPN
1/28 Kansas State 2:00 PM ESPN2
1/31 at Auburn 9:00 PM SEC Network
2/4 at Mississippi State 3:30 PM SEC Network
2/8 Ole Miss 6:30 PM SEC Network
2/11 Georgia 4:00 PM ESPNU
2/14 at Kentucky 7:00 PM ESPN
2/18 Missouri 1:00 PM SEC Network
2/22 Vanderbilt 6:30 PM SEC Network
2/25 at South Carolina 1:00 PM SEC Network
3/1 at LSU 7:00 PM SEC Network
3/4 Alabama 1:00 PM SEC Network

Rick Barnes certainly didn’t schedule like this is a rebuilding year, that’s for sure. The Volunteers open the season with a dangerous Chattanooga team. They will play Wisconsin in the opening game of the Maui Invitational, and as usual the Maui field is loaded with Georgetown, Connecticut, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, and Oregon. And if the Vols don’t see North Carolina in Maui, they’ll travel to Chapel Hill on December 11; they’ll also face Georgia Tech and Kansas State, face Gonzaga in Nashville, and take a road trip to East Tennessee State. In short, for a rebuilding team, there are few automatic wins on the non-conference schedule.

And the Vols’ SEC schedule isn’t really any better; with baked-in annual home-and-homes against Kentucky, Florida, and Vanderbilt, it’s going to be a challenge. It’s not helping matters, either, that two of the other three basement-dwellers from last year, Auburn and Mississippi State, are both on the road. So the Vols’ record may end up exaggerating the rebuilding process just because the schedule is probably one of the SEC’s toughest.

Outlook

Tennessee was picked 13th in the SEC in the poll of seven TSK contributors, and five of them actually did pick the Vols 13th (one picked them 12th, another picked them 14th). And it’s not difficult to figure out why. Like Missouri, this team is inexperienced and most of the freshmen weren’t all that highly regarded as recruits.

I was admittedly skeptical about the Barnes hire in 2015, but in hindsight it makes plenty of sense. The Tennessee program badly needs some stability at the top after Cuonzo Martin left town and Donnie Tyndall turned out to have, well, major issues with the NCAA. Sometimes, a low-risk, low-reward hire makes sense. Barnes probably won’t win a national championship (or even an SEC championship) at Tennessee, but hopefully he’ll hang around for a few years and leave a much better situation for the next coach than the one he inherited.

But that’s going to be a multi-year process. What effectively amounted to lost recruiting classes in 2013 and 2014 are going to really start affecting the program now, and Barnes’ decision to play for 2018 and 2019 means that this year could feature an ugly record and, possibly, a last-place finish in the SEC. Yeah, there are other teams whose short-term situations aren’t really much better (if they’re better at all) than Tennessee’s, but other than Missouri almost nobody else is relying on a roster filled with freshmen and sophomores who weren’t all that heavily recruited. If Hubbs and/or Mostella can start to live up to their potential, Tennessee might be able to put up something close to a .500 record in conference play, but even then they’re still going to be relying on youngsters for a lot of production.

With all that said, when you’ve been a head coach for 29 years and have 619 career wins to your credit, fans tend to believe in the process a lot more than they would with an unproven head coach. Barnes will get time, and Tennessee certainly isn’t itching to make another coaching change any time soon. This year is going to be a long one in Knoxville, but that’s not really Barnes’ fault, and there’s reason to think that better days are ahead.