Tennessee exited the NCAA Tournament in the Round of 32 with rising senior team captain Admiral Schofield making a promise: “We will be back.”
The Vols are a popular top-10 pick one year after playing the role of Cinderella, winning a share of the SEC title after being picked 13th in the preseason.
Coach Rick Barnes says Tennessee will play to its own standard, and that last season should be viewed as a stepping stone. “It doesn’t mean anything unless you make it work for you,” says the 64-year-old Barnes, a veteran of 23 NCAA Tournaments. “If what we did last season looks big to us, we’ve made a mistake.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Rick Barnes
2017-18 RECORD (SEC): 26-9 (13-5)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Loyola-Chicago 63-62 in the second round
G James Daniel III (5.6 ppg, 2.8 apg)
Reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams figures to be the go-to man again after leading the Vols with 15.2 points per game. That said, Tennessee learned in its NCAA Tournament loss to Loyola-Chicago that senior Kyle Alexander might be the key to a championship run, as his absence due to a bruised hip proved costly. Barnes calls Alexander the “fix-it guy,” largely because of the 6'11" post’s ability to play defense around the rim. Alexander blocked 57 shots last season and altered dozens of others.
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Teams have double-teamed the burly Williams since his 37-point outburst last January at Vanderbilt. Williams is strong enough to play through some double teams, but on other occasions his basketball IQ and court vision trigger a deadly inside-out game. That’s where Schofield kicks in, an optimal wing when the Vols go big. Schofield can bang in the paint, but he has also developed a reliable 3-point shot and can guard any position on the floor.
“We’re gonna have guys that we’re going to play through, and everybody knows that,” Barnes says. “But we would like to get to a point where we aren’t relying on one or two guys.”
Teams often attacked Williams and Schofield with hopes of getting them into foul trouble. But the Vols have grown up quickly. Derrick Walker is a thick and seasoned sophomore, and pogo-stick forward John Fulkerson is coming off his first healthy offseason.
Incoming freshman D.J. Burns graduated high school a year early, and it remains to be seen if he can work his 6'9", 280-pound body into playing shape fast enough to get significant minutes.
Barnes wants more consistency from lightning-quick junior point guard Jordan Bone, who disappeared at times and was sometimes pulled in the second half of games.
“Consistency, that’s the key word,” Barnes says of his point guard situation. “Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bone and we’ll put Jordan Bowden there some. One thing for certain about that position, you can’t hide.”
Bone’s 124 assists to 44 turnovers are evidence of his point guard skills, but Barnes will continue to demand more.
Turner, the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year last season, can heat up in a hurry from the perimeter, leading the team in 3-point makes (70) and attempts (177).
The 6'5" Bowden most often guarded the opposing team’s top perimeter scorer, leading the team with 39 steals while also shooting 39.5 percent from 3.
Sophomore Yves Pons, an explosive 6'5" leaper from France, is a harassing defender who will grow into more minutes on the wing as his offensive skill set improves. Barnes is also counting on improved play from 6'7" sophomore wing Jalen Johnson, another long defender.
The Volunteers have the pieces for a championship run if they can get consistent play at point guard and continue to play with a chip on their shoulders on defense and on the boards.
Postseason Prediction: Elite 8
SEC Prediction: 2nd