It’s about that time.
Tennessee will tip off their 2018-19 campaign this week with an exhibition matchup before playing their first one that counts next Tuesday night against Lenoir-Rhyne. This season will bring some of the biggest expectations of all time on the men’s basketball side with the Vols starting out ranked sixth in the AP Poll.
They’re expected to contend for the SEC title again, along with perhaps something bigger down the road. Tennessee returns nearly everyone, so let’s take a look at what we should expect, along with how they can improve this year.
2018-19 Key: Consistent aggression
Most analysts will tell you that Bone holds the key to Tennessee taking the next step. The junior point guard oozes athleticism, but lacks the consistent aggression to be a true difference maker. The flashes are on tape — just check out both Arkansas games from last season.
Bone’s three-point percentage rose from 30 to 38 percent last season, but the rest of his game was stuck in neutral, for the most part. Rick Barnes challenged him more than a few times last year to be more aggressive and get to the rim more. To his credit, it did seem like he did that in the final few games of 2017-18.
With Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams demanding most of the offense, Bone doesn’t always have to be a primary option for the Vols. However, there’s no excuse for Bone disappearing in large stretches like he did last season. He’s simply too talented for that to happen.
2018-19 Key: Fire away
Bowden and Bone’s keys are similar. Both are huge complimentary pieces for Tennessee, playing as the third or fourth options in the offense. In order to maximize their roles, they’ve got to consistently do what they do best. In Bowden’s case, that’s firing away from deep.
The 6-5 junior shooting guard shot nearly 40 percent from three-point range last season, but like Bone, Bowden was missing in action for stretches of last season. He finished last year without scoring in the double digits in the final seven games of the season. Bowden was just 4-20 from long range during that stretch, including an 0-5 performance against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament final.
Despite that poor stretch, Bowden ended up tied for the lead in three-point percentage last season. He only attempted 129 shots from long range last year, which ranked a distant third on the team. That number needs to go up. It should with the departure of James Daniel, which will leave Tennessee a little thinner at guard.
2018-19 Key: Keep on being the alpha
For Schofield, it’s as simple as building on his success during tournament season last year. Grant Williams may have won SEC player of the year, but it was Schofield carrying this team down the stretch. He closed the year with 11 straight games in double figures, emerging as Tennessee’s top scoring threat from all areas of the floor.
Expect Schofield to really take ownership of this team. With a legitimate NBA future on the table, the pressure is on to really improve his draft stock.
2018-19 Key: Handle more minutes
Turner was a huge spark plug for Tennessee last season, providing a really good scoring option off of the bench and hitting several clutch shots throughout the year. If the game is on the line, I want Turner in the ballgame. With James Daniel now out of the rotation, more minutes are likely going to land on Turner’s plate.
Lamonte grew into a more efficient player last season, shooting 40 percent from the field and from three. Expect a slightly expanded, but similar role for him this season.
2018-19 Key: Become a legitimate role player
If there’s one big difference in last year’s team and this year’s team, I think it’s going to be Jalen Johnson. Simply put, Tennessee has to have Johnson contribute without James Daniel and Chris Darrington on the roster. Barnes attempted to add a veteran guard this offseason, but that ended up eventually falling through. Instead, he’s going to roll with Johnson.
A 6-6 sophomore, Johnson has yet to play consistent minutes for Barnes. He played in spurts last year, but never really cracked the rotation. That’s probably going to change now.
Johnson scored just 16 points in all of last season, nine of which came from beyond the arc. Barnes absolutely loves Johnson, evidenced by just about any press conference where his name comes up. Jalen will get his shot to become a key piece of the puzzle this season.
2018-19 Key: Energy off the bench and development
Pons arrived at Tennessee as a raw athlete that couldn’t do much more other than provide a highlight dunk. Through one season as a Vol, we haven’t seen much more than that. Barnes gave Pons some minutes late last season, carving out a small role for the wing from France. He offered a few flashes in those minutes, giving energy off the bench, but not really giving much offensively.
With Admiral Schofield graduating after this season, it’s really important that Pons starts to develop into a productive player. Barnes has proven plenty capable of developing players — just look at Schofield for reference. It will be interesting to see if Pons can follow in his footsteps.