It’s about that time. In a little over a month, Tennessee will hit the hardwood once again. It’ll be a new era for the Vols, who will be tasked with replacing four of their five starters from last season.
Preseason practice begins today, so expect to start seeing some bits of basketball information start to leak out over the next few weeks. With practice underway, here’s what I’m watching for over the next month.
Uros Plavsic’s eligibility
No more Grant Williams, Kyle Alexander, D.J. Burns or Derrick Walker. That’s four post players to replace for Rick Barnes, meaning the eligibility ruling on Uros Plavsic is the most important storyline to follow ahead of the season.
The 7-1 center is a former four-star prospect who is transferring in from Arizona State. In order to play this year, Plavsic will need a waiver from the NCAA. Barnes remains confident that he will get one.
John Fulkerson and Zach Kent are the only veteran options left in the frontcourt for Barnes. Olivier Nkamhoua and Drew Pember also enter the equation as freshmen this season. Fulkerson is the only post player with any sort of playing experience at this level, however.
While Plavsic hasn’t played, his size is much needed considering the state of the Tennessee post right now. Without him in the mix, the Volunteers would have to play some serious small ball.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much information on a timeline here. On the football side, we saw the NCAA drag out a ruling on Aubrey Solomon until the week of the first game. For now, Barnes is assuming he’s going to get one, while planning for the worst, just in case.
Josiah-Jordan James’ role
Seniors Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden will turn into option one and two this year for Tennessee. Their returning production will be heavily leaned upon as the Volunteers transition out of the Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield era.
You can probably expect a serious uptick in production from the guards across the board, which includes five-star freshman Josiah-Jordan James. The 2019 five-star prospect picked Tennessee over Clemson and Duke, giving Barnes his first big get on the recruiting trail in Knoxville. In a transition year, James should immediately emerge as a massive contributor. But where he will play will be interesting to follow.
James is billed as a combo guard and possesses the size of a wing, but has the ability to play some point guard as well. You would assume Lamonte Turner would take over the full-time role of point guard after the departure of Jordan Bone, but you’ll probably see some minutes from James in that role as well, purely out of necessity.
Barnes wasn’t able to add another point guard after Bone left, striking out with 2019 point guard Jalen Cone. This leaves a bit of a question mark on the depth in the backcourt, but also opens the door for James to run some point in certain spots. You can probably expect to see the same from Jordan Bowden.
New look depth
Losing four of five starters and two more role players will drastically alter the look of a team. Four new starters means Tennessee is also looking to replace its depth, meaning it’s time for a handful of guys to step up and deliver.
- Jalen Johnson: The 6-6 redshirt junior guard has stuck it out at Tennessee and should be rewarded this season with significant playing time for the first time in his career. We’ve seen flashes out of Johnson over the last two seasons, but nothing consistent because he simply hasn’t had the opportunity. Johnson should now be the 4th guard in the rotation, entering the game for Bowden, Turner and James. He shot 9-20 from three-point range last year — getting anything close to that 45 percent long-range shooting would be huge this season.
- Yves Pons: It’s time. What else can you say about Pons? Just when you thought he had turned a corner last season, Pons fell out of the rotation completely. Now more than ever, Tennessee needs Pons to develop into at least a consistent role player off the bench. With less experience in the post this season, might Tennessee opt to play him at the four? With his 6-6 size and elite athletic ability, he just might be able to make that work.
- Zach Kent: Another guy that’s waited his turn, Kent should be ready to play this season. The redshirt sophomore hasn’t seen too much action in his two years in Knoxville, but that’s about to change. At 6-11, 235 pounds, Kent offers size and long-range shooting ability. Going back to high school, Kent shot 40 percent from deep, which could give the Vols a little different feel this year. He may very well end up being the first big off of the bench behind Fulkerson and Plavsic.