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Three Biggest Questions for Tennessee Basketball In 2018-2019

Will the Volunteers pick up right where they left off?

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee basketball blew past Tusculum on Wednesday night with a dominating 87-48 victory. While there are not many conclusions to be drawn from that game, it provided a nice warm-up before the regular season begins on November 6th against Lenoir-Rhyne.

Expectations are high for Tennessee after a stunning SEC title and NCAA tournament appearance in the 2017-2018 season. Almost every poll has the Volunteers ranked in the top-10, and most are anticipating a deep tournament run.

In order to do that, Tennessee will need to answer a few important questions.

How Will the Bench Look?

Tennessee’s bench only loses two players: guards James Daniel III and Chris Darrington. Neither were overly essential to team success, but they filled their roles nicely. Daniel III is the bigger loss of the two considering he averaged almost 20 minutes per game and ranked 6th on the team in both offensive and defensive win shares.

The Volunteers are hoping that forward Yves Pons continues to progress, with some positive words from Rick Barnes fueling the talk around him. Guard Lamonte Turner returns as the SEC Sixth Man of the Year and might shoulder even more of the scoring load while Pons and others get adjusted to their new roles.

After those two, it’s a bit more in flux. Jalen Johnson, John Fulkerson, Derrick Walker, and Zach Kent are all in the mix to round out those final three spots, while incoming freshman center D.J. Burns is a redshirt candidate. The first four will likely get equal minutes depending on the situation.

Ideally the team will lean on contributions from guys like Pons and Turner, whose development has been on the right track. The offense is still a bit of a question mark until the actual games begin. It will depend on Turner continuing his stellar play and Pons living up to the hype. The ceiling for this group is quite high, while the floor is not all that low.

Can Jordan Bone Put It All Together?

Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams deservedly receive all the attention from national outlets. Both were exceptional last year and now have the honors to their name. Now they can finish their career as two of the great players in program history.

Lost in the discussion is guard Jordan Bone. Tennessee diehards know what Bone can do when he’s in a rhythm—his assist game is infectious and helps players like Schofield and Williams achieve at such a high level. He can also pitch in with some scoring of his own, though his true potential has always been rooted in his court general ability.

He can also be maddeningly inconsistent. There were stretches of last season where Bone would barely average more than two points and two assists per game. He’d then follow it up with double digit scoring performances and five-plus assists. Fluctuations in his minutes played a part in that, but Bone did not help his case many times.

Bone is now a junior with an unquestioned role on the team. He’s had enough experience and results to start expecting a more consistent player. If Tennessee wants to take the next step, it will involve Bone improving in this regard.

What is the “Next Step”?

Speaking of the next step...what exactly does that entail for Tennessee?

Rick Barnes successfully turned around the program and even overachieved in his third year as head coach. Tennessee should have been higher in the preseason SEC rankings anyways, but they undoubtedly proved it by capturing the SEC title. The loss to Loyola-Chicago in the second round was deflating, but there is always a Cinderella team getting hot at the right moment. They just so happened ran into Tennessee along their way.

So now the Volunteers return virtually everybody in a system that requires a lot of experience to succeed. They have the experience, the talent, and the expectation to make a deep tournament run. Is that really the next step?

Without sounding like too much of a downer, it’s hard to envision Tennessee’s ceiling being much higher.

Coaches like Barnes don’t win national championships. Their systems are too technical to sustain a run over six straight games against top teams. It’s not by sheer luck that Barnes has only made the Final Four once in his career. After 32 years of data, it’s pretty clear what the ceiling is.

Tennessee could absolutely shatter the trend. Perhaps this is the year that they simply have too much to counter, both offensively and defensively. If a majority of the breaks go their way, Tennessee’s floor is the Sweet Sixteen, and if all the breaks go their way, maybe they will hoist the first national championship trophy in program history.

It’s just hard to envision that ever happening. In a few years, after Barnes has brought in recruiting classes with more top-tier talent? Maybe. But for now, Tennessee fans should expect the Final Four and not get disappointed if they come up just a little short.

That idea seemed so brazen just three years ago...