Tennessee tips off the 2017 season against Presbyterian on Friday after a slate of exhibition wins against Davidson, Carson-Newman and Clemson. While two exhibition games (the Davidson game was behind closed doors) is not enough to tell us what to expect for the Vols’ season, we did get to see some newcomers and returning players in action for the first time.
This is certainly Rick Barnes’ deepest team since he arrived in Knoxville, however it has its fair share of unknowns.
In past years, the Vols have relied on the likes of Josh Richardson, Kevin Punter and Robert Hubbs to carry the load. That may not be the case this year with more talent across the board. Here are my headliners for Tennessee’s season.
MVP – Grant Williams
Williams did not start in the exhibition against Carson-Newman — Rick Barnes went with junior college transfer Chris Darrington instead, citing a lack of consistency at practice. Williams took the message to heart, it appears, leading Tennessee in scoring and rebounds against both Carson-Newman and Clemson.
There is no question Tennessee’s most valuable players in recent years have come from the backcourt, but with the amount of options they have in that area this year, Williams is primed to have a big season.
Overlooked as a recruit, Williams averaged 12.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team. He will need to have an even better season if the Vols hope to challenge the SEC’s best and compete for an NCAA tournament spot.
Breakout Star – Chris Darrington
Selecting Darrington is a tough choice. There’s a wide range of newcomers and sophomores that could have a big impact on the Vols’ season.
While most people are talking about transfer James Daniel III and French international Yves Pons, Chris Darrington has been getting the job done on the court so far in his short time at Tennessee. He sat out the exhibition against Clemson with a high ankle sprain and is currently day-to-day, but the Vols should get him back for the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Darrington averaged 20.7 points and 5.1 assists per game while at Vincennes University. Maybe more importantly for the Vols, he shot 43.1 percent from beyond the arc, a value Tennessee desperately needed last season. On top of that, Darrington led Tennessee with 14.3 points per game in the Vols’ three-game trip to Europe this past summer.
There are a lot of players to choose from for a breakout candidate, but Darrington may be primed for a huge year.
Fan Favorite – John Fulkerson
Fulkerson give Tennessee fans plenty to be excited about at the beginning of the 2016 season, but it was cut short by a dislocated right elbow and fractured wrist, and he was able to qualify for a medical redshirt.
Fulkerson was set back again by a torn labrum in the spring, which resulted in his second surgery. The 6-foot-7 forward has unique speed at his position in addition to his defensive skills, which he put on display with 9 blocks in the short time he played for the Vols last season. He tallied five In Maui against Oregon alone.
Fulkerson is from nearby Kingsport and adds another dimension to the Vols’ frontcourt. Tennessee fans are going to be chanting his name frequently if he can stay healthy this season.
Sharp Shooter – Jordan Bowden
Tennessee has so much depth in its backcourt that points from the 3-point line will likely come from a host of guys. This was the main weakness for this unit last season, however, as the Vols just shot 33 percent on the season as a team.
Bowden was inconsistent from deep last season, shooting around the team’s average (32 percent), but made some big shots in important games against Kentucky, Ole Miss and more.
Tennessee will have a handful of players who can shoot from long range, but it’s always nice to have a go-to option. After a full year under his belt, Bowden can be that guy for the Vols.
SEC Finish – 6th
Tennessee was picked to finish second to last at SEC media days, but most around this program feel that is not likely. A 13th-place finish would be a disaster for the Vols, and some would be calling for Rick Barnes’ job.
However, the SEC is going to be tough to crack this year. Florida, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt all return plenty of talent. Missouri is expected to have a huge turnaround with the arrival of Michael Porter Jr. and his brother, Jontay, both highly regarded in recruiting circles.
The Vols’ nonconference schedule is no cakewalk, so they will need consistency in SEC play. This was something that escaped them last season, especially down the stretch.
Rick Barnes has not hauled in highly touted recruiting classes, but is known for his development of overlooked players, and that has already been apparent in his time at Tennessee.
This team is certainly deep and talented enough to finish near the top of the SEC and make a run in the conference tournament.
NCAA Tournament berth?
With the much-improved SEC this season, we could very well see the conference break its record of six teams in the NCAA tournament. I think Tennessee will get in, but may have to be on the bubble fighting for a spot late in the season.
To continue playing in March, the Vols will have to avoid bad losses and get a few quality wins before the turn of the new year, which they should have plenty of opportunities to do. After a grueling nonconference workload, the conference slate won’t be easy on Tennessee, and the Vols could be left on the outside looking in again.
This team is more than capable of getting its first tournament appearance since the 2013-14 season. For the first time in the Barnes era, the expectation (for Tennessee fans at least) is to go dancing. If the Vols can stay healthy and consistent, the sky is the limit.