The 2018-19 basketball season will officially begin for the Vols as they open the season on Tuesday night against Rick Barnes’ alma mater, Lenoir-Rhyne. The Bears will travel from Hickory, N.C. to square of with the reigning co-SEC regular season champions. The Division II school shouldn’t provide much of a threat to Tennessee. The Vols come into the season ranked No. 6 in both the AP and Coaches polls, its highest preseason ranking in school history for either composite.
There is a ton of hype surrounding the Vols. They return all key contributors from a team that surprised everyone last season. The only departures were James Daniel III and Chris Darrington. Daniel ran out of eligibility and Darrington transferred to Toledo.
They will also return SEC Coach of the Year in Barnes and SEC Player of the Year in Grant Williams. There is Admiral Schofield, too. Don’t forget about Lamonte Turner either, the reigning co-Sixth Man of the Year in the conference. You get the drift. Tennessee doesn’t suck.
The ceiling has never been higher for Tennessee basketball. It’s not just the talent that makes this team dangerous. Their best weapon is their chemistry. Barnes has yet to ink a top-100 recruit. Yet, here they are looking build on their special season from a year ago. This season they have their eyes set on more than a cup of coffee in the dance. Here are few things look for on their journey:
There is no secret that Schofield and Williams are two of Tennessee’s best weapons. It is the best one-two punch the Vols have seen since Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld displayed their magic back in the ’70s. Williams’ hot start to last season warranted much attention from the opposition. After several games, teams finally opted to double-team the blue-collar forward. That is when Batman found his Robin. Or in this case: peanut butter and jelly, as the duo is aptly named. Schofield’s work ethic showed. He developed a range of shots and emerged as a superb defender. His size and athleticism presented match up problems, especially with Williams demanding attention. Despite Williams’ numbers falling a bit towards the end of the season, he still earned SEC Player of the Year. Schofield finished with second-team All-SEC honors.
What can this duo do to build upon last year’s success? For Williams, the obvious answer probably revolves around extending his shot range. He certainly doesn’t need to be a sharpshooter, but having the option of shooting from 16-18 feet out would provide even more of a nightmare for opposing teams. For Schofield, it’s continuing to be a clutch performer and provide the consistency that is needed for a go-to option down the stretch of a game. There are not many holes in either player’s skill set. They aren’t going to get any longer or taller overnight, but they continue to get better at what they already do well.
One question that fans might suggest would be: who will emerge as a surprise out of such a healthy stable of options? It is safe to assume that sophomore Yves Pons is the answer that everyone wants. The French Connection, Haitian Sensation or whatever nickname you want use, is building a ton of hype with his frame and his athleticism. This offseason, he displayed highlight reel dunks in videos and on Rocky Top Tip-Off night. As much as I want to see a huge impact from Pons, I think his biggest growth is still a year away. Don’t get me wrong, when the playbook becomes more comfortable and familiar to him, look out.
With that said, I think Tennessee’s most improved player will be Jordan Bone. The junior guard displays elite quickness and good ball skills. His career assist to turnover ratio is a modest 2.5-1, but improving. Last year he averaged 2.85-1. Expect that number to rise. The Ensworth product doesn’t shoot a ton of three-point shots, but has a solid average behind the line sitting right at 35 percent. His favorite spot is either elbow, unless he can blow by people. I think the Nashville native expands his shot chart and takes control of the point guard duties on essentially a full-time basis. This will allow Jordan Bowden and Turner to focus on hitting shots and attacking from the perimeter. I think Bone has room to improve to the extent that he could end up on draft boards by season’s end. The 6-3, 180-pound junior is among 20 candidates for the Bob Cousy Award watch list, presented at the end of the year to the nation’s best point guard.
As mentioned, the Vols’ bulkiest players are unfortunately not their longest. However, they do have a rim-protector in senior Kyle Alexander. The 6-11, 215-pound forward/center saw quite a bit of improvement last year. The Canadian shot a staggering 68 percent from the field. Despite a limited shot range, that is impressive. He also averaged around 1.7 blocks per game. The defense from Alexander really seemed to emerge towards season’s end. He injured his hand in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and was unable to play against Loyola-Chicago in the second round. His absence turned out to be a huge factor in the result of the game. Expect Alexander to continue where he left off, but who can spell him and/or help him on the blocks?
There are a couple of options for Barnes. Outside of Williams, Barnes’ best option will probably be sophomore Derrick Walker. The Jauan Jennings lookalike was a pleasant surprise last year. The Missouri product only averaged around eight MPG, but expect that number to go up. He made the most of his opportunities and Barnes wasn’t afraid to call on the unseasoned big man in conference play. He played valuable minutes down the stretch and showed grit and toughness while replacing Williams and Alexander. He is noticeably more trim and fit. The last forward of Barnes’ regime to undertake an overhaul regarding their body composition was Williams. We all know how that turned out for him. Can he eventually be that type of presence? Until Williams is no longer an option, it will be in small doses. But any semblance of Williams will do as a rotational option.
Barnes’ other option could be D.J. Burns. The freshman out of Rock Hill, S.C. reclassified himself to be eligible for this season. The center could see some limited, but important playing time. Listed at 6-9 and 270 pounds, the big man’s size will be a welcomed presence. Look for the freshman to make a splash similar to Walker’s last season. Length and size on the block is about the only thing this team lacks.
Among The Elite
The Vols had a disappointing ending to such a magical season last year. There is no secret about their capability this year, though. People continued to doubt them before, but not anymore. They have a target on their back now. They could see some losses early, which ultimately could season them for March. They will play Louisville, Gonzaga and Memphis before SEC play. They also have a chance to play either Kansas or Marquette in the NIT Season Tip-Off final this month. West Virginia comes to town in January, and we all know how tough conference play be. When it’s all said and done, Tennessee should be the class of the SEC again. However, the difference this year will be predicated on their postseason success. Here is how I see the Vols and the rest of the league shaking out:
Preseason SEC Rankings
6. Mississippi State
9. South Carolina
13. Texas A&M
14. Ole Miss
I have the top seven teams listed getting in to the big dance. The surprise team of the conference will be LSU. Will Wade has been hot on the recruiting trail, I mean WHITE HOT. LSU returns one of the nation’s best point guards in sophomore Tremont Waters. He will have help in the backcourt this year thanks to the addition of highly touted Baton Rouge prospect Ja’Vonte Smart. They will also welcome five-star studs Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams. Make no mistake about it, these guys have no intention of playing for more than a year on the Bayou. Both are likely one-and-done players who are freakish athletes for their size. Reid is a 6-9, 220-pound forward. Williams is a slightly smaller and lighter option at the same position. Look for Wade to build on his 18-win season from a year ago. The Tigers will take some lumps, but after developing some chemistry and confidence they will be poised to make the big dance and potentially wreak havoc on the opposition. The upside for this squad is scary.
To keep up with the Cajun theme, I also predict Wade to be Coach of the Year. Some considered the Nashville native to be an option for the Tennessee job after Donnie Tyndall’s departure in 2015. The timing just wasn’t right. Wade was still a bit unseasoned at a big-time program. Since that time he has impressed. But Vol Nation is happy with their current leader. The Vols travel to Baton Rouge on Feb. 23 for their only meeting in the regular season. However, it might not be the last time these two see each other.