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2017-18 SEC Basketball Preview: Tennessee Volunteers

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Rick Barnes is doing this the hard way, but he’s got some nice pieces to work with.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee Volunteers 2017-18 Season Preview

Head Coach: Rick Barnes (31-35, 2 years; 635-349, 30 years overall)

Last year: 16-16 (8-10 SEC); KenPom rating: 57

Returning starters: 4

Returning possession-minutes: 60.6%

Recruiting class ranking: #54 nationally; #11 in SEC


How Did We Get Here?

2016-17 was a reminder that Rick Barnes knows what he’s doing.

Barnes’ first team at Tennessee went 15-19, then Tennessee lost three of its four leading scorers — and it would ultimately be four of the top five, as Detrick Mostella was dismissed from the team at midseason. Barnes’ 2016 recruiting class didn’t include a single player ranked higher than #147 in the 247 Sports composite, and unlike a lot of coaches at a new school looking for a quick fix, Barnes resisted the urge to load up on transfers.

This was going to be a bad team, right? We certainly thought so, but Barnes proved everybody wrong. The Vols played Wisconsin and Oregon tough in Maui, blew out Georgia Tech at home, and led the eventual National Champs by five with four and a half minutes left — in Chapel Hill! — before falling by a bucket. And in SEC play, the Vols pulled off an upset over Kentucky, ranked #4 at the time, and thanks to a tough schedule found themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble at the beginning of February. Things slipped after that as the Vols lost 7 of their last 10 to finish the year 16-16, but given how low the expectations were that has to be considered something of a success.

Now, the last remnants of Cuonzo Martin’s tenure are gone as Robert Hubbs III, the team’s leading scorer, has graduated. So this is completely Barnes’ team. What does that portend?

The end of Barnes’ tenure at Texas was marked by repeated underachievement with very talented teams; Barnes won seven NCAA Tournament games from 2007-15. But before that, he’d cobbled together winners from overlooked guys at both Providence and Clemson, and his first couple of years at Tennessee suggest that he hasn’t forgotten how to do that.

This year’s team only has one player who was a four-star recruit, and basically nobody on this team is popping up on NBA Draft boards. Oh, and there are four sophomores and five freshmen on the roster.

Then again, regardless of what recruiting rankings said, those sophomores (freshmen last year) showed a lot of promise. With Hubbs gone and everything in the hands of the kids, this team probably isn’t ready to make a run at an SEC title or even an NCAA Tournament bid — but are we still doubting Rick Barnes?


Backcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
0 Jordan Bone 6'3" So. 7.2 ppg/2.9 apg
1 Lamonte Turner 6'1" So. 8.2 ppg/2.7 apg
3 James Daniel III 6'0" Sr. 27.1 ppg/2.8 apg (Howard)
4 Jacob Fleschman 6'3" Fr. walk-on
12 Brad Woodson 6'1" Jr. walk-on
13 Jalen Johnson 6'7" Fr. redshirted 2016-17
23 Jordan Bowden 6'5" So. 7.9 ppg/2.9 rpg
24 Lucas Campbell 6'4" Jr. walk-on
32 Chris Darrington 6'1" Jr. #14 JC recruit

Well, it’s not completely in the hands of the kids. Barnes picked up James Daniel III — who led the nation in scoring in 2015-16, before getting a medical hardship after missing all but two games of last season — as a graduate transfer from Howard, and Chris Darrington, who averaged 20.7 ppg at Vincennes last year.

Daniel almost single-handedly was Howard’s offense in 2015-16. He averaged 19.4 field goal attempts and 11 free throw attempts per game that year, and while his shooting percentages -- 42.8 percent on twos, 33.2 percent on threes — weren’t necessarily terrific, they’re in the context of him being essentially the only offensive threat on his team.

His 84.6 percent shooting at the foul line might be a better indicator of his ability, and anyway, it’s highly unlikely that Daniel will be taking 19 shots a game for the Vols. The talent around him is miles better than what he had at Howard.

Darrington’s shooting percentages at the JUCO level were much more impressive — 43.3 percent on threes and 80.4 percent at the foul line. He also averaged 4.6 assists per game there, and like Daniel he’s capable of playing both guard spots. The track record of transfers from lower levels to the SEC is mixed, but at the very least Barnes has two guys on his roster who were electric scorers at that level.

Last year, Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner essentially split point guard duties; Bone was nominally the starter, but the two each played around 19 minutes per game. It seemed that Barnes saw the potential in Bone — who averaged 2.9 assists per game as a true freshman — but Bone’s shooting left a lot to be desired.

In SEC play, Bone shot just 37 percent on twos and 26.5 percent on threes. Take out a 23-point outing at Vanderbilt, when Bone went 8-of-12 from the floor in front of his hometown crowd, and Bone shot 30.7 percent from the field in conference play. That’s not going to cut it.

But then again, Turner wasn’t much better, shooting 41 percent on twos and 31.2 percent on threes. Turner was also unusually foul-prone for a guard, averaging 3.9 fouls per 40 minutes on the year. In any case, with Daniel around Barnes won’t need to ask Turner and Bone to score much if they’re going to shoot like that again.

Jordan Bowden started 27 games as a freshman, though the team-wide shooting bug affected him as well (There’s a reason this team ranked 313th nationally in effective field goal percentage). Bowden scored in double figures five times in SEC play, though his last double-figure game came on February 8 against Ole Miss (he missed two games late because of an injury). But the Knoxville native did shoot 83.9 percent at the foul line, so there’s probably some potential for him to develop into a good shooter.

Jalen Johnson redshirted last year, but the 6-foot-7 freshman from Durham, North Carolina, could find his way into the rotation this season.


Frontcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
2 Grant Williams 6'7" So. 12.6 ppg/5.9 rpg
5 Admiral Schofield 6'5" Jr. 8.2 ppg/4.4 rpg
10 John Fulkerson 6'9" Fr. redshirted 2016-17
11 Kyle Alexander 6'11" Jr. 3.3 ppg/4.0 rpg
15 Derrick Walker 6'8" Fr. #269 recruit
33 Zach Kent 6'10" Fr. #203 recruit
35 Yves Pons 6'5" Fr. #126 recruit

As a freshman, Grant Williams showed why you maybe shouldn’t put too much stock in recruiting rankings. Williams was a guy who barely cracked the top 200 of the 247 Sports composite and had offers from places like Rutgers, Texas Tech, Yale, and Appalachian State.

Yet Williams started 29 games and averaged 12.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game and was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman team. Not a bad performance for a guy who was an afterthought entering the season. It’s not difficult to figure out why: Williams’ main skills are rebounding (he ranked third in the SEC in offensive rebounding rate), scoring in the paint (nearly 90 percent of his field goal attempts were inside the arc), and blocking shots (seventh in the SEC in block rate), and that’s... not exactly a skill set that will work in the NBA when you’re 6-foot-7.

In other words, in three years Kentucky fans will be cracking jokes about how he’s been at Tennessee for a decade. Williams had 30 points in a loss against Georgia, 25 in a win over Missouri, and grabbed 14 rebounds in a losing effort at LSU late in the season.

The rest of the frontcourt is unsettled. Kyle Alexander, a 6-foot-11 junior, came in as a raw offensive player with size and continues to be a raw offensive player with size. His ability as a defender and rebounder was good enough to earn him 23 starts as a sophomore; his limited offensive ability ensured that he only averaged 14 minutes per game.

Alexander shot just 46.6 percent from the floor — bad for a guy who’s almost exclusively taking chip shots — and he logged just one double-figure game, a 13-point outing against Appalachian State early in the year. And that was actually an improvement over his freshman year, when he averaged 1.7 points per game and shot 43 percent from the floor.

Alexander lost his starting job for a few games early in the season as John Fulkerson, like Williams a freshman who was overlooked as a recruit, showed enough promise early on to log six starts. The 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman scored 12 points against both Oregon and Georgia Tech and also averaged 4.6 rebounds over the first ten games of the season.

But the 10th game of the season was his last one, and he’ll look to get more playing time this season. Fulkerson lacks Alexander’s raw upside but is a much more refined player at this point in his career, and the most likely scenario is for Fulkerson to get the lion’s share of playing time until Alexander proves he can play extended minutes without being a complete cipher on the offensive end.

Junior Admiral Schofield is an interesting player, to say the least. At 6-foot-5, 240 lbs., he’s built much more like a football player than a basketball player, and his propensity for committing fouls — he averaged 4.9 fouls per 40 minutes as a sophomore — only adds to that perception. But he also shot 44.7 percent on threes in SEC play, and after getting into Rick Barnes’ doghouse early in the season he averaged 10.6 ppg and 5.3 rpg in conference games.

Yves Pons is the highest-rated player in Tennessee’s recruiting class and comes by way of INSEP Academy in Paris. At 6-foot-5, Pons is a freak athlete and averaged 10.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game playing for France at the FIBA U17 World Championship in 2016. Pons will likely compete with Schofield for playing time on the wing.

Tennessee also added a couple of big bodies in the freshman class in 6-foot-8 Derrick Walker and 6-foot-10 Zach Kent. Both were rated as three-star recruits.


Schedule

Date Opponent
11/2 Carson-Newman (exh.)
11/10 Presbyterian
11/14 High Point
11/22 vs. Purdue
11/23 Battle 4 Atlantis
11/24 Battle 4 Atlantis
11/29 Mercer
12/3 at Georgia Tech
12/9 Lipscomb
12/17 North Carolina
12/20 Furman
12/23 at Wake Forest
12/30 at Arkansas
1/2 Auburn
1/6 Kentucky
1/9 at Vanderbilt
1/13 Texas A&M
1/17 at Missouri
1/20 at South Carolina
1/23 Vanderbilt
1/27 at Iowa State
1/31 LSU
2/3 Ole Miss
2/6 at Kentucky
2/10 at Alabama
2/13 South Carolina
2/17 at Georgia
2/21 Florida
2/24 at Ole Miss
2/27 at Mississippi State
3/3 Georgia

As has been the case in his first two years, Rick Barnes didn’t shy away from tough tests in nonconference play. The Vols will meet Purdue in their first game in the Battle 4 Atlantis, and that event’s field also includes a pair of likely top 10 teams in Villanova and Arizona and another NCAA Tournament team in SMU. In December, Tennessee will host North Carolina and travel to Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.

And they probably shouldn’t overlook potentially tricky matchups against Mercer and Furman, either. The Vols travel to Iowa State in late January for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

As usual, Tennessee will play home-and-homes with Kentucky and Vanderbilt in SEC play, but the other three double opponents — Ole Miss, Georgia, and South Carolina — might not be too daunting (though all three have coaches you shouldn’t count out, and Andy Kennedy might have his most talented team ever.) In any case, this is the kind of schedule that gets you in the NCAA Tournament if you can manage to squeeze 18 or 19 wins out of it.


Outlook

In a league where seemingly everybody else is bringing in big-time recruits, Tennessee seems content to plug along with a bunch of overlooked three-star recruits.

And that might just be fine. Rick Barnes once went toe-to-toe with North Carolina and Duke while sporting a roster consisting of Greg Buckner, Harold Jamison, and a bunch of guys who never played a minute in the NBA, and managed to have that team ranked as high as #2 in the country and in the Sweet 16. That long-ago history was mostly forgotten when he managed to do less than that with Kevin Durant at his disposal, but his early returns at Tennessee suggest he hasn’t lost his ability to evaluate and develop players.

In short, I’m done doubting Rick Barnes. Last year’s team consisted of Robert Hubbs and a bunch of overlooked freshmen and sophomores, and while the team showed about the level of consistency you’d expect from a roster like that, the high points (a win over Kentucky and a near-miss at North Carolina) were high enough that you can talk yourself into Tennessee being pretty good now that those freshmen have a year under their belts.

That said, with Hubbs gone I’m just not sure where the scoring will come from. Grant Williams is a nice piece in the paint, but Tennessee’s hopes for perimeter scoring consist of Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner, and Jordan Bowden -- all of whom struggled late last season — and a couple of guys who lit up the MEAC (James Daniel) and the JUCO ranks (Chris Darrington.) This could work — remember, Rick Barnes hasn’t won 635 games by accident — but the odds are that the Vols are a year away.