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A Primer for Tennessee Basketball Recruiting

What to expect on the trail for the Volunteers.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Tennessee vs Loyola Chicago Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The commitment of 5-star guard Josiah James took the college basketball world by surprise. Very few penciled in James as a future Volunteer, but his Wednesday announcement made it clear that he felt comfortable in Knoxville and saw himself achieving great things at Tennessee.

In addition to the boost it gives to the team, James’ commitment also has many rethinking what head coach Rick Barnes is capable of on the recruiting trail. To this point, Barnes had not secured a commitment from a player ranked any higher than 108th overall. Tennessee also started slow in the 2019 class and looked like it was running out of time to fill a hole on the roster. The Josiah James commitment changed all that.

Since the Volunteers are projected as a top five team for 2018, it seems logical to assume that the recruiting will pick up over the next couple of seasons. What should fans expect as Barnes and his squad look to build the program back in to a consistent national competitor?

General Rules

Basketball recruiting is a bit different from football recruiting in obvious (and not so obvious) ways.

First is the amount of players per year. Whereas football recruiting classes require gaining commitments from around ~20 guys, basketball recruiting usually maxes out around six. It seems like I’m just repeating known facts, but here’s where that class size makes a difference.

For a program like Tennessee, chances are your classes won’t be filled to the brim with blue-chip recruits. That’s a honor reserved for schools like Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, etc. Programs whose main focus is basketball and who have the results to show for it. Their classes are sometimes stacked to an insane degree (check out Duke’s 2019 class with three top-10 players).

So instead, Tennessee’s classes will likely be top heavy. They’ll have a standout recruit or two that can immediately make an impact, but the rest of their class will hover in the mid 4-star, high 3-star range. That’s especially true for Rick Barnes, because his system looks for a type of player with defensive range. Some highly rated recruits simply don’t fit the system or would not be maximized if they went to Tennessee.

Small class sizes also mean that certain years will see a team take only one or two recruits. It’s the natural cycle of having a team with a lot of upperclassmen and very few draft departures. Tennessee only took one player in the 2018 class because of this (4-star center D.J. Burns).

Perhaps more surprising for those used to football recruiting is the uncertainty in basketball recruiting. Yes, there’s plenty of uncertainty in football recruiting, but in general there’s very few players who commit to a school out of nowhere. Typically the main contenders are known for quite some time before the commitment. Very rarely does the recruit choose a school not in that aforementioned group.

That’s not the case in basketball recruiting. The nature of AAU ball has made the entire process a massive headache behind the scenes, in addition to the obvious domino effects of some commitments. It’s not unusual to see players with very few predictions commit to a program that was considered a heavy underdog. In fact, it happened on Wednesday morning with 5-star combo guard Josiah James.

Highly rated basketball recruits also see playing time much faster than highly rated football recruits. Most backcourt players are physically ready when they make it to college, it’s just a matter of getting adjusted to the pace of a higher level. It’s a saving grace for many teams who expect veteran players leaving, since a very talented player can come in immediately and replace at least some of their production. That’s likely going to happen with Tennessee in 2019 when Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander graduate.

One final note: Designations like “point guard” or “small forward” are becoming less and less important. There’s some players who are strictly limited to one spot on the court, but for the most part teams are able to incorporate players in multiple positions.

For Tennessee

Rick Barnes pulled an absolute stunner with the Josiah James commitment, as many assumed that Clemson was the clear frontrunner with Duke in second place. Tennessee was an afterthought for many people. Instead, James committed to Tennessee and filled one of their biggest needs for the 2019 class.

Tennessee is expected to lose forwards Schofield and Alexander after 2018-2019 and possibly guard Lamonte Turner if he decides to test NBA waters. Even assuming that Turner stays for 2019-2020, they’ll be losing him and two other starting guards with Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden afterwards. That seems far away right now, but in terms of recruiting, it needs to be addressed earlier.

James committing gives Tennessee an expected freshman contributor and eventual starter. He’s a dynamite scorer who exhibits solid playmaking ability and athleticism. He also looks like he could turn into a fantastic wing defender, which Barnes’ system values highly. Either way you slice it, this commitment was a slam dunk.

The Volunteers still probably need one more guard. Right now they seem to be in it for Jalen Lecque (#4 CG, #29 overall), KyKy Tandy (#12 CG, #94 overall), and Isaac McBride (#13 CG, #96 overall).

That being said, it’s going to be difficult with how the scholarships work out. Wes Rucker at 247Sports suggested that current commit Drew Pember could reclassify to the 2020 class, which would free up a spot to grab another guard left on the board. This could also be achieved by parting ways with commit Davonte Gaines (not likely) or with someone currently on the team leaving for whatever reason.

Tennessee is fine when it comes to their backcourt guys. They have more than enough post players for the next few years, including Derrick Walker, Zach Kent, D.J. Burns, and John Fulkerson.

Next year’s class should be larger thanks to the graduation of at least four scholarship players after 2019-2020. If the James commitment is any indication, Barnes has rediscovered the magic on the trail that propelled his Texas teams to tournament runs. He’s already proven that his system can succeed greatly in the SEC—imagine what it will look like with even better players backing them up.