Tennessee couldn't meet its lofty expectations last season. The Vols, a trendy preseason Final Four pick, at times produced more frustration than fun. The season was capped off by another disappointing finish in March, with No. 12 seed Oregon State handling Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Those high expectations haven't changed. For the second straight season, Rick Barnes has compiled the highest-rated recruiting class in program history — one that includes the nation's top point guard and a potential one-and-done NBA lottery pick. He also brings back four of his top seven scorers, all of whom played 24.7 or more minutes per game.
Once again, the Vols have a nice blend of talent, depth and experience. Will the end result be different this time around?
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Rick Barnes
2020-21 RECORD (SEC): 18-9 (10-7)
2020-21 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Oregon State 70-56 in the first round
G Keon Johnson (11.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg)
G/F Yves Pons (8.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
G Jaden Springer (12.5 ppg, 2.9 apg)
Replacing former SEC Defensive Player of the Year Yves Pons won't be easy, but John Fulkerson's decision to return for his sixth season gives Tennessee a veteran to lean on in the frontcourt. The 6'9" forward, like many others on the roster, had his struggles offensively last season. Still, Fulkerson led the Vols in field-goal percentage (52.7) and finished second with 5.5 rebounds per game. At his best, he's an All-SEC-caliber player who can impact the game on both sides of the court.
While Fulkerson will lead the way in experience, five-star freshman Brandon Huntley-Hatfield could offer the most production. A 6'10" power forward with next-level scoring ability? That's just what Tennessee needs. "He's a highly skilled forward who is a terrific passer and has the ability to stretch the defense with his shooting," Barnes said after Huntley-Hatfield signed with the Vols.
Another freshman, 6'11", 230-pound forward Jonas Aidoo, is a top-40 recruit who should add more frontcourt depth. Additionally, Tennessee returns juniors Olivier Nkamhoua and Uroš Plavšic. The duo had a combined 40 appearances last season.
Tennessee's top two scorers — Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson — departed for the NBA after one season, and both were first-round picks. Three productive returners and the nation's top freshman point guard will attempt to replace their contributions.
Senior guard Victor Bailey Jr. has emerged as a reliable scorer. He finished second in 3-pointers made (47) and averaged a team-high 18.2 points in the final five games of the regular season. Junior guard Santiago Vescovi led the Vols with 53 3-pointers and led the team with 29.3 minutes per game. Josiah-Jordan James returns after leading Tennessee in rebounding, offensive rebounding and steals.
The newcomer who will garner the most attention is 6'1" freshman Kennedy Chandler. The Memphis native ranks as the best point guard in the 2021 class, and he has all the tools needed to push the Vols forward on offense. "To us, his elite speed, athleticism, defense and basketball IQ separated him from every other point guard in America," Barnes says. "But it was his character, work ethic and toughness that really made him a perfect fit for our program."
Meanwhile, Auburn transfer Justin Powell should provide much-needed perimeter shooting. Freshman Jahmai Mashack, an athletic 6'4" guard, could quickly find a spot in the rotation due to his defense.
With a host of experienced returners, two future NBA talents in Chandler and Huntley-Hatfield and potential X-factors in Powell, Mashack and Aidoo, the Vols have no shortage of options in the rotation. But Tennessee must answer two questions to reach its potential.
For starters, will the offense be better? With Chandler running the show, it's possible. Still, the Vols have to replace their top two playmakers to make it a reality. Secondly, can the defense remain elite? Pons was the driving force for Tennessee's success in that area. It's up to Fulkerson and others to fill the void.
If the Vols can successfully answer those questions, they'll compete for an SEC title. If not, it'll be another tale of unmet expectations.
Postseason Prediction: NCAA Tournament Round of 32
SEC Prediction: 3