These old, gritty, battle-tested Volunteers are gearing up for conference play, starting with the Georgia Bulldogs this Saturday afternoon. Tennessee’s only blemish through a challenging non-conference schedule was a tough overtime loss to Kansas, which saw Grant Williams foul out just before the extra period.
The 11-1 Vols will enter conference play as the favorites to capture the SEC crown. That fun begins this weekend. As the real season begins, here are five developments to watch going forward.
Bone stepping up
Why does Tennessee seem to have taken a big step forward this year? Look no further than point guard Jordan Bone, who has emerged as the third cog in Tennessee’s offense. The super-athletic junior guard has really come into his own, playing in control and taking smart shots. Bone has made a living by getting inside the arc and either pulling up for a clean mid-range look, or finding the right pass to make.
Bone is averaging over 14 points per game, doubling his output from last season. One reason why has been the absence of Lamonte Turner, which has put a ton of minutes on his plate. Still, his field goal percentage is up from 39 to 45 percent, despite taking roughly five more shots per game.
His assist numbers have nearly doubled as well as Bone has grown into a more tradition option at the point guard position. The offense used to just simply run through Grant Williams, but that’s far from the case anymore. It’s why Tennessee is ranked at No. 3 entering the new year.
Grant and Admiral are equally dangerous
As good as Bone has been in December, make no mistake — this is still about Grant and Admiral. The difference this year? Admiral Schofield is more of a “1B” option than second fiddle. We really saw that start to happen down the stretch last season. It took him a few games, but he’s back to that form now.
Williams is averaging 20 points per game, but Schofield is right there with him at 18. Schofield was the reason Tennessee pulled off the win over Gonzaga, which was great to see considering how reliant this team had been on Grant to that point.
With these two playing at the highest levels of their careers, along with Jordan Bone doing the same, it’s hard not to have confidence in this group advancing deep into March.
Perhaps the most impressive thing Tennessee has done this year is simply winning all these games without Lamonte Turner, last year’s SEC sixth man of the year. Turner came back for a three game stint, but was quickly sat back down after ineffective play. He’s still nursing a shoulder injury and has already been ruled out for the Georgia game this weekend.
Whenever he gets back, Tennessee is going to get another offensive shot in the arm. Turner is that big shot maker for the Vols, as evidenced last year at Rupp Arena. His outside presence will only make Tennessee that much more dangerous, along with taking some minutes off of Bone’s plate.
Under a year ago, Yves Pons couldn’t find the floor. Now he’s in the starting five for one of the best teams in the country. Pons replaced Jordan Bowden after Bowden’s cold shooting start and really hasn’t looked back. Pons isn’t exactly the most dangerous threat to score, but he’s making his impact defensively and on the boards. There aren’t many people on the planet that get up for a rebound like Pons does.
That added size and athleticism has made a difference for the Vols, even if his offense is basically limited to catching alley-oops.
Around the SEC
After another slow start, Kentucky seems to be turning a corner entering conference play. The Wildcats took a tough loss to Seton Hall, but have since come up with convincing wins over North Carolina and Louisville. They’ve done it behind the play of former five-star recruit Keldon Johnson, who is averaging 20 points per game over his last three.
Veteran forward Reid Travis gives Kentucky some senior leadership, which is something that they rarely have anymore. Kentucky typically gets better as the year goes and they seem to be following that trend once again.
Elsewhere in the league, Auburn seems to have picked up where they left off. They gave Duke a tough game in Maui, but dropped their first true road game at N.C. State. They have three decent wins over Washington, Xavier and Arizona.
Mississippi State sits at 12-1, with their only loss coming to Arizona State. Tennessee got a taste of what the Bulldogs bring to the table last season in the SEC Tournament. Quinndary Weatherspoon, Nick Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters are all back and should make plenty of noise in conference play.
There seems to be a clear top four in the SEC this year, but LSU, Florida, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Missouri all could be tough outs in the middle-tier.