Tennessee basketball is off to a fast start in 2018, maintaining a top-10 ranking after going 5-1 in their first six games. Their marquee win was over the Louisville Cardinals, who should be ranked next week after knocking off the No. 9 Michigan State Spartans. Tennessee also took the Kansas Jayhawks down to the wire before falling in overtime. Truthfully, nothing unexpected has occurred.
We will be checking in with six takeaways for every six regular season games this year. Below is the first edition of the series, where we attempt to identify any developments that will be of interest as the season progresses.
Games: Lenoir Rhyne (W), Louisiana (W), Georgia Tech (W), Louisville (W), Kansas (L), Eastern Kentucky (W).
Grant Williams Has Rediscovered The 3-Point Shot
How does the reigning SEC Player of the Year become even more dangerous? By showing off a willingness to launch the 3-point shot. Williams is shooting 5-for-10 on the year and had a breakout performance against Louisiana, where he went 3-for-4. While that only translates to 2-for-6 in the other games, the mere threat of shooting behind the arc can radically change how a defense approaches a player.
Williams regressed in this area from his freshman to sophomore year. After recording a 37 percent mark in the 2016-2017 season, he became much more gun shy in 2017-2018 and shot just 12 percent on 25 attempts. The issue seems to have been rectified.
If he keeps up his current pace, Williams will set career highs in both 3-pointers attempted and 3-pointers made.
John Fulkerson Is Getting Better (Slowly)
This point would have been much stronger had John Fulkerson not regressed against Kansas. Despite the setback, Fulkerson had strong defensive showings against the first four opponents on the schedule, even if he did not make an impact in scoring.
His most complete game was against Georgia Tech, when he compiled six rebounds, two blocks, two steals, and one assist, in addition to one made free throw. Fulkerson will likely never be a reliable option for points in the paint, but Tennessee has to like what they have gotten from him on the defensive end of the court. He hustles everywhere and is not afraid to get physical with opponents—though it caught up to him against the Jayhawks. Thankfully the Volunteers will not face many teams with as talented a frontcourt as Kansas.
Jordan Bone Has Taken the Next Step
We asked a question in the preseason about Jordan Bone developing as a player. He had shown flashes of brilliance last season, but had failed to put it all together and become the dynamite scoring option that Tennessee could desperately use.
Bone has actually surpassed expectations in this regard. He has not just impressed with his scoring, but his willingness to rebound and be a pesky member of the defense. By the numbers alone, Bone appears to be a very well-rounded player, averaging 14.0 points per game, 4.6 assists per game, 3.4 rebounds per game, and 1.2 steals per game. All four are career highs.
There is a good argument that Bone has been the second best player on the team this year. If this is the player that will show up consistently throughout the season, Tennessee’s road to the Final Four gets much easier.
Admiral Schofield Needed A Boost
It’s hard to get a good read on Admiral Schofield this year. On one hand, Schofield has improved in both rebounding and assists, with the latter being the most noticeable. He seems more comfortable at finding his teammates and making the extra pass for an easy bucket.
Yet as one of the premier scoring options, Schofield was inconsistent through five games. A couple games have seen a stark contrast between his first half and second half production as he enters various hot and cold streaks. Before the Eastern Kentucky contest, his efficiency had taken a step back. Schofield was shooting a career low 41 percent from the floor and disappointing 32 percent from 3-point range. He oddly struggled with free throws as well (4-for-9 on the year).
He almost singlehandedly reversed trend with his game on Wednesday night. Schofield was hyper efficient and put together a dominant performance, even if it was against an inferior opponent. He shot 8-for-9 from the floor, made both of his 3-point attempts, and generally overpowered the Colonels. It was the exact type of night he needed to revive his hype.
Barnes Might Be Holding Back On Some Rotations
Rick Barnes said before the Eastern Kentucky game that Yves Pons would make his first career start. That was music to Tennessee fans ears, who have watched the ultra-athletic Pons slowly work his way into the lineup and progressively improve on both ends of the court.
It is also an indication that Tennessee might be putting some rotation options in their back pocket. They have faced just one elite opponent, and it was in the fifth game when you are still evaluating how your team is performing. There is no need to show off your flexibility this early in the year. Since they are about to enter a slightly tougher stretch, they can start to unveil some tricks.
As the season goes on, I expect Pons and Derrick Walker to be greater factors. Lamonte Turner’s return from injury should also be an extra ingredient into whatever Barnes cooks up. The team will have the same philosophy and largely the same playbook of course—but now they will have interesting wrinkles.
Tennessee Should Enter Conference Play 10-2
The initial look at the non-conference slate provided three opportunities for losses: Louisville, Gonzaga, and Memphis. That was not including whoever they would face in the NIT Season Tip-Off. The Volunteers were expected to win at least two of those, but there was a real possibility of a slump to begin the season.
Now that the regular season is almost 20 percent over (look it up, I did the math), a couple of Tennessee’s upcoming opponents are struggling. Their next six games are Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, No. 1 Gonzaga, Memphis, Samford, Wake Forest, and Tennessee Tech.
Texas A&M-CC, Samford, and Tennessee Tech should be automatic victories. I actually like what Samford could do this season, but they are not nearly as talented nor as proven as the Volunteers.
Meanwhile, Memphis and Wake Forest have stumbled to begin 2018. The Tigers are going through a coaching change and a loss of talent that will not be rectified until their next recruiting class comes in. They are currently 3-3 and did not look particularly impressive in those three wins. Wake Forest is 4-2 but their losses include Saint Joseph’s and Houston Baptist.
The only real challenge is Gonzaga. Have no doubt, that is going to be one heck of a challenge. The Bulldogs are undefeated and handed Duke their lone loss of the season. Their frontcourt is absolutely loaded and they match up very well with Tennessee. If Tennessee can pull off a victory in this one...they will probably be the top ranked team in the ensuing poll.