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Five Questions for Tennessee Basketball Next Year

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The Vols lose four seniors but will look to improve on a 15-19 season in Rick Barnes' second year.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2016 season coming to a close after a memorable three day run in the SEC Tournament, the conversation turns immediately to 2017 and year two for Rick Barnes.  The Vols will lose four seniors and 62.7% of their scoring, nearly half of that coming from Kevin Punter.  But the Vols will feel his loss a little less this off-season thanks to their performance in Nashville and their regular season win over LSU without him.

Tennessee will certainly miss his leadership, along with Armani Moore's.  The Vols will feature just one senior next year in Robert Hubbs, the last Cuonzo Martin recruit in the program.  Thankfully we don't plan on changing coaches again this off-season.  Continuity will be nice; if the Vols want growth, they'll need to find positive answers to these five questions:

How much of a difference can Lamonte Turner make?

In 2006 C.J. Watson averaged 15.3 points and and 3.9 assists per game while shooting 42.2% from the arc.  Ten years later he's still in the NBA.  Since then the following have played point guard for Tennessee:  Ramar Smith, Bobby Maze, Melvin Goins, Trae Golden, Antonio Barton, Josh Richardson, Kevin Punter.  The last two were there by necessity, and even Antonio Barton was playing out of his natural position.  Only Golden, in Cuonzo's first year, has averaged more assists per game than Watson, able to get the ball in to Jarnell Stokes and a healthy Jeronne Maymon for high percentage shots.  The Vols certainly got some good minutes and some good wins from the guys playing point guard in the latter half of Bruce Pearl's career, but Watson remains the image bearer for point guard play in Knoxville, and it hasn't been approached since.

Tennessee hopes Lamonte Turner can change that.  Turner was never cleared for Barnes' initial season, allowed to practice but not play.  His three star ranking won't set Vol hearts on fire, but being able to run an offense where your best scorer doesn't have to double as your point guard will be a breath of fresh air.  If Turner can play the role effectively (with a possible assist from incoming freshman Jordan Bone), it can change the dynamic for every other player on the floor.

Will the Vols get consistency from Robert Hubbs & Detrick Mostella?

The best sign from the season finale was these two leading the team in scoring.  Mostella had a nice spurt early in the year in eight games from Gonzaga to Mississippi State, averaging 14 points and shooting 20 of 45 (44.4%) from the arc.  But his production and his minutes bottomed out the rest of the regular season, getting just 6.4 points per game.  It wasn't his three point shooting that brought him back to life in Nashville, going 6 of 21 in three games.  But his all around game accounted for 17 against Auburn, 18 against Vanderbilt, and 19 against LSU.  He also tied season highs in rebounds (six against Vandy) and assists (four against Auburn).  There's a fearlessness to Mostella, who will always be 6'1" but can get above the rim with the best of them and isn't afraid to try.  His development as a consistent, all-around player will be critical for this team with two years left to play.

Hubbs' ceiling remains closely tied to Tennessee's ceiling next season.  There is progress almost anywhere you look:

2014 18.3 5.0 30.7 1.5 0.7
2015 24.8 7.2 40.9 2.9 0.9
2016 26.7 10.6 45.2 3.9 1.3

Hubbs should lead Tennessee in scoring next season, but if Tennessee is going to significantly improve they'll need him to do more than that.  If he and Rick Barnes can get on the same page and build from there - and his performance in Nashville gives hope there - Hubbs can be the focal point of Tennessee's offense next season, the beneficiary of not only better point guard play but stronger post play:

How much will Kyle Alexander & Ray Kasongo improve?

Alexander is the greatest hope here because he's only been playing basketball for a few years.  He's already a solid shot blocker thanks to a generous wingspan, but averaged just 1.7 points in 12.2 minutes this season.  The Vols found their greatest success swarming the post with smaller players instead of leaving Alexander to fend for himself against the SEC's big bodies.  If Alexander is going to be on the floor next year, this has to change.  Kasongo played in around two-thirds of Tennessee's games, getting 1.4 points in 5.5 minutes.  He won't need as much work in the weight room as Alexander, but must still be considered a project going forward.

Best case scenario:  the Vols are able to compete with a lineup of Lamonte Turner, Detrick Mostella, Robert Hubbs, Admiral Schofield, and Kyle Alexander, with Shembari Phillips and Ray Kasongo giving relief off the bench.  As that's still only seven guys, Tennessee will have to rely on at least a few freshmen for minutes.

Which of the newcomers can help right away?

Tennessee's incoming class (not including Lamonte Turner) has moved up a few spots since the early signing period, now ranking 44th in the 247 Composite and sixth in the SEC.  The new guys are all three-stars:

  • 6'2" guard Kwe Parker from High Point, NC (137th overall nationally)
  • 6'6" forward Jalen Johnson, also from High Point (164th)
  • 6'2" point guard Jordan Bone from Nashville (Josh Bone's brother) (229th)
  • 6'8" forward John Fulkerson from Arden, NC (230th)
  • 6'7" forward Grant Williams from Charlotte (251st)
Unlike this season the Vols won't need all of them after twice the roster attrition with twice the coaching turnover.  But even if both Alexander and Kasongo come on, it's likely the Vols will need a few minutes from Fulkerson or Williams unless they want to play small ball again.  It's also likely Jordan Bone will get every chance to be the backup point guard, allowing Shembari Phillips to play off the ball.

Will we see progress right away or later in the year?

Rick Barnes dropped several nuggets about Tennessee's non-conference schedule next year in his final postgame appearance on the Vol Network.  The Vols will open with Chattanooga, currently 29-5 with a Top 50 RPI.  Then it's the tournament of tournaments in Maui, where you'll find Georgetown, North Carolina, Oregon, Oklahoma State, UConn, and Wisconsin.  If the Vols don't run into the Tar Heels on the islands they'll see them in Chapel Hill later in the year.  The Vols will also run it back with Gonzaga in Nashville, and should have a return trip coming from Georgia Tech.  Add in an SEC/Big 12 Challenge foe and it will once again be a tough haul through the non-conference portion.

From a distance, making the NIT looks like a successful season.  To do that the Vols will have to learn how to win on the road, get a boost from a natural point guard and another year of basketball for its most important post player, and get consistency from Mostella and arrival from its lone senior.  All of that plus the natural progression for Shembari and Schofield.  It's a tall order and progress, if present, may come slowly.  But we keep going back to the week that was in Nashville, sparking hope that Rick Barnes and company can find that progress in year two instead of year three.