A 2016-17 season that started with few expectations found itself squarely on the bubble at the end of January as the Vols were 13-9 (5-4). A 3-7 finish was no fun, but this year was still better than those expectations and will pave the way for a higher bar in 2017-18. With only two seniors, no juniors, and some intriguing new faces in the mix, the young core we saw as the future of Tennessee Basketball this year is now very much its present for the next several seasons.
The Vols will miss Robert Hubbs, but in some ways were already missing him at the end of this season. He wasn’t on the floor in crunch time against Georgia, as his knee seems to have continued to deteriorate. When he put in 25 points in the January 24 win over Kentucky we were ready to announce his arrival on a much bigger stage. But that game was almost a farewell in hindsight due to his health concerns.
Hubbs averaged 14.7 points and shot 50.3% from the floor in November-January. But in February and March (in a generally easier portion of Tennessee’s schedule) he averaged 11.8 on 39.2% from the floor. This was more than shots simply not falling.
As a result Tennessee’s offense was often stagnant down the stretch. Only six times did the Vols score less than 60 points this year, and all of them were in February and March. The Vols didn’t have a good answer to replace Hubbs’ production on the fly this season, but Rick Barnes and friends will have an entire off-season to figure that out now.
They’ll get some additional help from Jalen Johnson and Yves Pons. Johnson was the highest-rated of Barnes’ 2016 signees, but the coaching staff elected to redshirt him (in part to put some mass on his 6’6” 170 lbs. frame). Pons comes from Paris, and he did this in the 2016 FIBA Under 17 World Championships:
We wouldn’t want to base too many of our hopes on what one can do against the Lithuanians in overtime...but, you know...
Both of these guys are 6’6” and will be expected to help right away. John Fulkerson will also return after a gruesome elbow injury silenced a strong early start this year. So the Vols essentially add a lot of intriguing pieces, but none of them address the two biggest surface flaws: three-point shooting and a traditional interior presence. 6’10” incoming freshman Zach Kent may help there eventually, but I’m not sure about immediately.
Tennessee has to feel good about what it’s getting from Admiral Schofield and certainly what it got from Grant Williams in just one year. And you can certainly feel excited about the newcomers. But one of the biggest questions, especially in dealing with offensive productivity, is the guard question. We touched on it in our SEC regular season review, and though Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner were both productive against Georgia (and Shembari Phillips didn’t play with a turned ankle), the question will still linger throughout the off-season. Tennessee was 12th in the SEC in field goal percentage and three-point percentage. It’s tough to win that way; the Vols still ended up doing a lot of their work at the free throw line.
Still, there is little doubt the Vols will improve. But Tennessee wasn’t the only team relying on youth this season: not only will freshman-loaded squads from Auburn and Mississippi State be looking for the leap, teams like Alabama and Texas A&M had NIT-level success this year and will bring almost all of their production back as well. The Vols will be better, but the league itself should continue to get better.
Tennessee will go back to the Battle 4 Atlantis where they’ll join, among others, Villanova, Arizona, and Purdue. They’ll host North Carolina and travel to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. The RPI shouldn’t be a problem the way Barnes schedules. But Tennessee is going to have to win some of those early games this time around, plain and simple, or they’ll find themselves again trying to chase a significantly-over-.500 record in a significantly improved SEC to get on the dance floor.
This year was a glimpse of the future. Just how good that future will be, and how quickly? Stay tuned. But Rick Barnes and company did a good job creating interest in this core’s ground floor and hope for its next steps.