One year ago today, March 9, No. 9 seed Tennessee faced off against No. 8 seed Georgia in the second round of the SEC tournament. In spite of Freshman Jordan Bone’s 14 points and Sophomore Admiral Schofield’s 11 rebounds, the Vols fell short 59-57.
As disappointing as the loss was, it was not unexpected. The Vols ended the mediocre season with an overall record of 16-16 and a conference record of 8-10. The roster was overwhelmingly full of freshman and sophomores, and injuries and illnesses plagued the already undersized team.
Following the emotional loss to Georgia to conclude the 2016-2017 season, coach Rick Barnes addressed the less-than-stellar performance by the team, but ended his interview with a glimmer of hope for the future ahead.
“I know one thing, this time next year we want to be in a position where we’re a postseason team,” Barnes said. “I’m proud of the young guys, and I think they learned a lot, but we want more and we’ve got to go get it.”
We want more.
SEC media wanted more, too, predicting the Vols to finish second to last in the conference. The team was still extremely young heading into the fall of 2017, with an average age of just under 20 years old and the title of fifth-youngest team in the nation. It wasn’t until the Battle 4 Atlantis that fans truly realized how special the season could be. With wins over Purdue and NC State and a narrow loss to Villanova, Tennessee basketball proved itself a solid contender among the league and the NCAA.
Each loss along the way resulted in better play, and in turn, led us to where the Vols are now: SEC champions, a No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament, boasting the SEC Coach, Player and 6th Man of the year with a solid chance of making a run in the NCAA tournament.
So what changed? It possibly starts with an intense offseason conducted by Barnes, and it does appear as though that high level of conditioning has made a difference on the court. Even Schofield acknowledged that much following the Vols’ win over Georgia to clinch a share of the SEC title.
“Grant (Williams) and I knew when we were going into SEC media days that those guys had no clue on how much work we put in during the offseason,” Schofield said.
A notable difference is the fact that each starter gained weight going into the 2017-2018 season, with Admiral Schofield (who stayed the same, and is arguably the most physical player on the team) the lone exception. The other four starters gained a combined 17 pounds.
“I think right now the biggest thing has been their conditioning level,” Barnes said. “”It’s at a point that we haven’t had before.”
And Schofield, again: “Those 5 a.m. (workouts), going to the track, having to run in the rain, having to make a mile in under 6 minutes in the rain. Those things, really, it builds character, toughness in players.”
It’s cliché, but it’s obvious to everyone watching this team that the toughness level is exponentially greater than teams in years past.
That difference and the playmaking ability off the bench are the main factors between this Tennessee team and the past two under Barnes.
More contribution from the bench has allowed for more in-game rotation, thus allowing the Vols to play at a faster pace. Specifically, the talents of redshirt sophomore Lamonte Turner and graduate transfer James Daniel III have helped Tennessee develop a deeper backcourt, which in turn has taken pressure off Bone and Bowden this season.
Turner seems to find clutch moments in every game, and he demonstrated it once again Saturday in the win over Georgia. He went 3-for-3 behind the 3-point line in the second half, and he knocked down a shot to put Tennessee ahead with just over six minutes left to play. Daniel, a graduate transfer from Howard University, is currently the No. 7 active scoring leader in the NCAA, but has transitioned to an assist-man for the Vols. Daniel’s season was highlighted by his 17 points in a win over LSU in late January.
A year later from the loss to Georgia in the SEC tournament, the Vols have proven themselves legitimate. And while it has accomplished so much thus far, there is still plenty within reach of this Tennessee team.