Tennessee Volunteers Head Coach: Rick Barnes (seventh season)
Notable Wins: vs. Kansas, vs. Arkansas, at. Mizzou
The Tennessee Volunteers went into last season as the favorites to win the SEC, and they really got off to a fast start. The Vols won ten of their first eleven games, including non-conference wins over Cincinnati and Colorado. A bad road loss to Florida would be followed up by a loss to Missouri, and this is where the theme of Tennessee’s season began: inconsistency. The Volunteers would win their Big 12/SEC challenge game against Kansas, but from there they traded conference games until the tournament. They got revenge on Florida in the first round before losing to Alabama, 73-68.
Tennessee’s inconsistencies made them a viable candidate for an upset in the first round. They landed in the vaunted 5-12 matchup, which would set up a date with Oregon State. The Vols struggled offensively, while the Beavers couldn’t have come out hotter. Tennessee couldn’t overcome the slow start, and they’d be the first of three to fall to Oregon State.
Tennessee Volunteers Roster Changes:
Key Returners: G Victor Bailey, G Josiah-Jordan James, F John Fulkerson
Key Losses: F Yves Pons, G Jaden Springer, G Keon Johnson
Key Newcomers: G Kennedy Chandler, F Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, G Justin Powell
Tennessee is set to enter 2021-22 without a defensive stud and their two leading scorers from last season. The loss of Yves Pons will be felt the most. Pons was arguably the best defender in the nation last season, and after winning the 2020 SEC Defensive Player of the Year Award, that’s not an understatement. The 6’6 swingman’s defensive prowess allowed the Vols to play small, he knew how to avoid foul trouble, and he was able to protect the rim at a respectable rate. Pons recorded nine blocks in the SEC tourney win over Florida, and he averaged 8.7 ppg, and 5.3 rpg. The departures of guards Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson were premature, as the Vols were on their way to creating something special this year. Springer grew as the season progressed, and became the Vols most consistent scorer. He averaged 12.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, while Johnson was a high flyer who also began to come into his own late, and he scored 11.3 ppg.
Their early departures will only make you wonder what they could have done with Kennedy Chandler in the fold. Chandler is the best recruit to commit to UT since Tobias Harris, and if he could have patched up with Springer and Johnson, the Vols would be a preseason favorite. Chandler’s arrival still brings optimism, and he should come right in and take over the backcourt. The 6’1 guard is a floor general with the ability to score at will. Brandon Huntley-Hatfield is likely to have a big role in his first year as well. The 6-9 forward can score from all three levels and he’s a strong rebounder. Signing former Auburn guard Justin Powell in the transfer portal was a solid pickup as well. A concussion halted his freshman season, but a pair of 26-point performances in December displayed his ability to get going from deep. Powell averaged 11.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg, and 4.7 apg.
Rick Barnes lost a chunk of talent, but he did retain four pieces that should heavily factor into the team’s success. Senior guard Victor Bailey Jr. feels like the perfect guard to slot beside a highly-touted point guard like Chandler. Bailey Jr. should find more room and reign to create this season after transferring over from Oregon and scoring 10.9 ppg. Hometown hero John Fulkerson will return for his sixth season after missing the tournament with an injury. He averaged 9.5 ppg, and 5.5 rpg, and he’ll serve as a leader and heartbeat of this Volunteers squad. Bringing back Josiah-Jordan James was huge, as the versatile guard could have a bigger role on both sides of the ball this year. James scored 8.1 ppg, while impressively leading the Vols in rebounding (6.5). Him and Pons gave teams fits on the defensive end last year, and look for him to raise that intensity this season. Guard Santiago Vescovi will also return for his junior year, and it’s always good to have a sniper on hand. Vescovi scored 8.7 ppg, and led the team in assists (3.1) and three-point percentage (37.3%).
Projected Lineup: G Kennedy Chandler, G Victor Bailey, G Josiah-Jordan James, F Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, F John Fulkerson
It doesn’t feel like Rick Barnes has been here for seven years, but after landing two top recruits in 2020, the signing of Chandler will be huge for this program going forward. He can be the lead guard Tennessee has lacked since Chris Lofton’s days, and he could propel them into a deep tournament run. Inconsistency really defined the Vols 2020-21 season, but last year was tough for everyone in the nation. Stability on and off of the court should benefit Rick Barnes’ team this season, and they should be right in the thick of things in a competitive SEC conference.
Projected Finish: 3rd in SEC, NCAA Tournament Bid
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