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The Vols Have Your Attention Now

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NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at North Carolina Evan Pike-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee’s near-miss in Chapel Hill was the latest and loudest example of what Rick Barnes’ squad could be, this season and beyond. The Vols are 4-4 with competitive losses to Chattanooga, Wisconsin, Oregon in overtime and North Carolina on the final possession. Those four teams are a combined 34-7 this year and were a combined 115-33 last year; 13 of their 20 starters are seniors. Wisconsin, Oregon, and Carolina are all in the Top 25 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings.

The Vols currently find themselves at #77 in KenPom. It may not sound like much, but it’s better than Tennessee finished the last two years (90th and 103rd). The narrative of those last two seasons was one star carrying the load in a coach’s first year with no real expectations, each of them ending with a happy SEC Tournament memory against Vanderbilt but nothing more than approximately .500 basketball. This year, with Tennessee picked 13th in the SEC, the only expectation was more of the same: Robert Hubbs would be that star, the Vols would go as far as he could take them, and a return to meaningful basketball was somewhere off in the distance.

Eight games in, we’re not only almost winning in Chapel Hill, we’re mad about it:

I like how Barnes is trying to raise the bar and create those expectations, and commend him for scheduling like the Vols are an NCAA Tournament team and getting his players to believe it. Maybe it’s against Barnes’ rules to feel good about coming close, but if you’ll allow me to break them: this team could make the NIT, and that would be a significant accomplishment.

That #77 KenPom rating is also 7th, not 13th, in the SEC. Kentucky will Kentucky at the top of this league (and hey, the Vols beat them last year) but Tennessee’s youth has been competitive away from Knoxville with teams projected to be better than everyone else in this conference. The sample size is still small on all these data points, but it’s also worth pointing out the Vols are currently 349th out of 351 teams in KenPom’s luck ratings. The Vols were 1 of 16 from the arc against Chattanooga, 6 of 19 against Wisconsin, 5 of 22 in the overtime loss to Oregon and 3 of 13 in Chapel Hill. Tennessee hasn’t been coming close against good teams because they’ve been hot: that’s 15 of 70 (21.4%) in the four losses from the arc. In the four wins, the Vols are 37 of 80 (46.3%). The way this team has played, even 25% from three would’ve been enough to beat Oregon and North Carolina.

Watching where the outside shooting levels off will be a major subplot, but the fact that there are so many options is a great sign. The one-star narrative is already in serious jeopardy, and it’s had nothing to do with Robert Hubbs. His performance against the Tar Heels was a great sign. An even better one for the future is what these freshmen have done.

Josh Richardson averaged 16 points per game his senior year but was responsible for 25.3% of Tennessee’s points. Kevin Punter put up 22.2, scoring 29.6% of UT’s points. So far Hubbs is averaging 14.8 points to lead the Vols, but it’s only 18.5% of Tennessee’s production.

Freshmen Grant Williams, Jordan Bowden, and Lamonte Turner average between 8.8 and 10.3 points per game. So did Jordan Bone in his three games before a stress fracture sidelined him. So does sophomore Shembari Phillips. And John Fulkerson continues to lead Tennessee in rebounding while averaging just 17.5 minutes per game, though that number is going up in a hurry.

A few weeks ago we thought Hubbs would have to put them on his back en route to maybe another .500 finish, and who knows how the program would go after he left. Now not only is the present outlook much more exciting, but the future is too.

Playing so many freshmen is still bound to frustrate; these Vols will still have their ups and downs. But so far we’re finding both of them are higher than we thought they’d be. At the very least, the blowout of Georgia Tech and the best competitive loss yet have made this season interesting, fast. I’m genuinely excited about seeing what they can do.

That continues tonight against Tennessee Tech at 7:00 PM on the SEC Network.