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Eight thoughts heading into basketball season

Some observations and questions as we enter basketball season.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball season is here, now we just need Tennessee to join the party. The Volunteers were supposed to open their season on November 25th, but a COVID issue within the program pushed everything back a couple of weeks.

In total, games against Charlotte, VCU, Gonzaga and Notre Dame were lost. We should already know quite a bit about this team. Instead, it’s December and we still know nothing. The Volunteers will — allegedly — open their season on December 9th against Tennessee-Martin.

Before that date arrives, here are a few thoughts to chew on.

1. Elite NBA Talent has arrived in Knoxville.

Terry: It’s a new era of Tennessee basketball, with the same coaching staff in place. Rick Barnes has really parlayed his success of developing players into multiple wins on the recruiting trail, which has now landed three five-star guards on the roster for this season. Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer are the newest additions, which will each bring a starting point of raw talent to the table that we really haven’t seen in this program.

NBA mock drafts are already all over Springer and Johnson, with each appearing as top 15 prospects heading into the year. Of course, plenty can change throughout the year, but the Volunteers haven’t had this amount of talent on a roster .... maybe ... ever?

This isn’t something that’s going to be unique to this season, either. Kennedy Chandler is the next five-star guard to walk through the door next year, potentially filling the spot of Johnson and/or Springer as they move on to the NBA.

2. This team will be a hybrid of old Tennessee and new Tennessee.

Terry: Building off of that first thought, there’s still plenty of old school Tennessee flare to this team. John Fulkerson and Yves Pons are still the heartbeat of the roster, entering year four in the program. Each have developed from the ground up, following the Grant Williams/Admiral Schofield/Jordan Bone path.

These guys have done it the right way and will provide a veteran presence for Tennessee to lean on as these younger elite guards figure things out. This seems to be the way to go in today’s college basketball landscape. Kentucky seemingly replaces a starting five every season and builds from the ground up every November. Rick Barnes won’t have to do that, instead he’s simply inserting a couple of future NBA guards into his already developed core that knows what Rick wants. Elite talent will never hurt you, but a lack of veteran leadership could absolutely doom a title run. The Vols now have both.

Taking it a step further, Santiago Vescovi, Josiah-Jordan James, Uros Plavsic, Olivier Nkamhoua and Davonte Gaines have now been in the program for a season, so it’s plausible to see them making a jump just as others have with Barnes. More on that below.

3. E.J. Anosike will solve a lot of problems.

Terry: Fulkerson and Pons are the two elder statesmen on the program, but by all early reports, you might as well throw Anosike into that category as well. The rugged, tough, rebounding machine is going to bring everything Tennessee didn’t have to the floor this season, likely as the first big off the bench.

Anosike will have a massive role on this team, and will offer Barnes the ability to get a little more creative with his lineups, perhaps freeing up Pons to move around a little more. It’s easy to see a big lineup featuring Pons-Anosike-Fulkerson at the 3-4-5.

The 6-7, 245 pound forward averaged over 15 points for Sacred Heart, adding over 11 rebounds per contest. That’s a pretty accomplished player entering the rotation, one that will certainly be an upgrade over the minutes we saw last season from Olivier Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic and Drew Pember.

Anosike seems to fit the mentality of a Barnes player more than anything though, so I expect him to fit right in with this program.

4. Santiago Vescovi should benefit from being thrown to the wolves last season.

Nick: Vescovi was listed as just a 3-star recruit, but the moment his first 3-pointer dropped against LSU last season, it was pretty apparent how integral he’d become to the Tennessee basketball team. He ended that game with six 3s, six assists, 18 points and nine turnovers, and it was a fitting microcosm for the freshman’s take-the-good-with-the-bad season. But that was 48-ish hours after his arrival to the states. And with the Vols playing most of the season without senior point guard Lamonte Turner, the whole year was ended up as the fiery-est of trials by fire.

Vescovi had no real pre-season practices or training camp, and played fewer than 20 minutes just twice in 19 games. He provided a sense of offensive volatility that Tennessee was missing in Turner’s absence.

He led the team in 3s per game with two per contest and was one of three Vols to average double-digits in scoring. He also led the team in assists per 100 possessions (7.3) and per 40 minutes (4.9). His season long turnovers per-game figure ended up a tolerable 3.5, but that’s undoubtedly the category that staff zeroed in on as most critical to Vescovi’s progression. He showed an innate gift for flashy passes, dropping jaws and raising eyebrows with no-look helpers that not every point guard can see. As a coach, you want to foster that vision and encourage his play-making ability while reigning in the turnovers without totally stamping out the creativity it takes to make those plays happen.

That’s a bit of a tight-rope to walk, but Barnes, a notorious poor-mouther, has been nothing but complimentary of Vescovi’s approach to the new season. Tennessee’s coach said the rising sophomore won’t have to play his way into shape like last season because he worked on his conditioning in the offseason. So, last season, he was one of Tennessee’s best players, and he was out of shape and had no idea how much harder the competition would be in the SEC than it was at the NBA Academy. That’s bad news for the rest of the SEC. He looked like an All-SEC quality player at times last year — how much better can he get?

* Birdman hand rub *

5. What will Josiah-Jordan James become?

Nick: There’s a lot of interesting facets of the team this season, but what becomes of Triple-J may have the most effect on how good this team ultimately becomes. He signed as a combo guard — the first 5-star guard commit in Barnes’ now three-year-long streak (James in ‘19, Johnson and Springer in ‘20, Kennedy Chandler next season) — but I’m not really sure how much pure point guard there is to his game. He dealt with injuries before and during last season, so even though this offseason has been weird for everybody, maybe we see a totally different Triple-J than we saw last season...?

Just like with all the players, we won’t really know until we see him in action, but with the influx of talent at guard, perhaps James can play off the ball at the three-spot or the four in a small-ball type lineup? Two guards, James at the three with Pons and Fulkerson down low, maybe?

Per game, he was the team’s second-best rebounder posting a 5.5 rebounds-per-game figure, and at 6-foot-6, 207 pounds, he’s got the broad, wide shoulders of guy who can hold his own inside. His 7.4 rebounds per 40 minutes ranked him third-best on the team, behind Nkamhoua (10.6) and Fulkerson (7.8). His 19.9 assist percentage and 3.9 assists per 40 minutes combined with his rebounding numbers and one-plus steal and block per-minute outputs spell out a guy who does a bunch of things pretty well and plays defense at the level the coaching staff expects. If he shows linear development in his shot and keeps up his defensive and rebounding numbers, it’s going to be hard to point out a more important player to the team’s overall success.

6. Tennessee’s depth is ridiculous.

Nick: The Vols played basically 10 guys last season — the starters plus Jalen Johnson, Olivier Nkamhoua, Davonte Gaines, Uros Plavsic and Drew Pember.

Johnson, Nkamhoua and Gaines were the only non-starters to average more than 10 minutes per game, so it was really, mostly, an eight-man rotation. That seems to be the number Barnes prefers to run with for most of the season, or at least it has been thus far during his tenure at Tennessee. But with all the new guys, will that change this season?

Jalen Johnson is gone, but Victor Bailey Jr., Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson, Corey Walker and EJ Anosike are new to the team and all look to figure into the minutes’ distribution pretty heavily. So, essentially, Tennessee’s adding two 4-stars, two five-stars and one of the best grad transfers in college basketball to the rotation.

If we’re trying to figure out who will play and who won’t, it’s helpful to look at what last year’s team struggled with to know where help is needed. Most glaringly, the Vols were awful offensively. They averaged 67 points per game which ranked 291 out of 353 total teams last season. Tennessee averaged 23 made FGs per game (317th), 53.4 FGs attempted (331st), and hit just six 3s per game (287th) at a 31 percent clip (284th). Anybody who can score or shoot will play.

As a team, the Vols were also one of the worst rebounding teams in the SEC and ranked in the bottom third nationally in defensive rebounds and total rebounds per game.

Now, if you break it down by the minute, Nkamhoua was the team’s best rebounder last season, posting a 10.6 figure that was almost two full rebounds better than Fulkerson’s 7.8 (good for second on the team). I imagine that he and Gaines played well enough last season to warrant the expectation of at least some minutes this upcoming season.

Barnes has said publicly that Anosike is the team’s best rebounder — already — and that’s both a good and bad thing. But with all that said... one can’t help but wonder where rising sophomore Plavsic fits into the picture. He didn’t win his eligibility appeal until mid-January, and then he was rather unimpressive once he finally got on the court. In 16 total games, he ended up with just 117 minutes, four fewer than Drew Pember’s 121, and cobbled together the team’s third-lowest per-40-minute rebounding figure at 5.1. And somehow, at 7 feet tall, he also logged absolutely zero blocks. Perplexing at best.

So what’s that? 11 or 12 guys who will play at least some? I don’t see Pember getting any minutes and maybe Walker would be in for a redshirt in a normal year. But since eligibility doesn’t count this year, it’s tough to say.

I’d say we end up playing 10 guys comfortably on a regular basis. Maybe it’s an issue, and maybe it isn’t. Either way, we’d all rather have too many guys than not enough.

7. Will it be a down year for the SEC?

Nick: Here’s the breakdown of how the media thinks the SEC shakes out this season on the basketball court.

  1. Tennessee
  2. Kentucky
  3. LSU
  4. Florida
  5. Alabama
  6. Arkansas
  7. Auburn
  8. South Carolina
  9. Ole Miss
  10. Missouri
  11. Texas A&M
  12. Mississippi State
  13. Georgia
  14. Vanderbilt

Only two of those teams were ranked in the initial AP Poll (Kentucky and Tennessee).

Tennessee is the best team in the league. The Vols have legitimate Final Four aspirations with the roster to back it up. But, as we’ve seen already, it’s going to be an abnormal and likely disjointed season. How many games will be played when everything’s said and done? The number is likely to vary from school to school and by year’s end, some teams could have played nearly 30 games and others just 20.

We’ve already seen Kentucky struggle, but most of the Cats offensive shortcomings will likely work themselves out by the end of the year. They have absolutely elite defensive potential if Cal can get all that length and athleticism on the same page.

The rest of the top six teams in the league could all be really, really, good, too (except Florida. The Gators will find a way to not be good). LSU is probably closer to the 28-win team from two years ago than they are to the team that went 21-10 last season. Freshman guard Cameron Thomas looks to be a handful — he’s scored 20-plus and made four 3s in each of LSU’s first three games while Trendon Watford and Javonte Smart were both preseason All-SEC picks. There’s still an investigation hanging over head coach Will Wade’s head, and from what I’ve read, Wade’s been strategically uncooperative by dragging his feet or flat-out ignoring deadlines to turn over evidence. It’s not a great look, especially since it’s already known he’s on tape discussing monetary offers to players with middle man Christian Dawkins.

Florida has plenty of talent centered around preseason SEC Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson, but I’m confident Mike White will find some way to screw it up like he typically does. I disagree with the media here — Florida won’t finish fourth in the SEC. They haven’t finished better than 11-7 in conference play in any of the last three seasons. Bama and Arkansas, despite the high roster turnover, will both finish higher in the league than Florida.

I imagine South Carolina finishes better than eighth and A&M finishes better than 12th. Both teams will be better than they’re currently getting credit for, but what does that mean for the conference as a whole? Will either be good enough to make the NCAA Tournament? In 2019, the SEC had seven teams make the Dance, but I’m gonna say eight teams make it this season.

I don’t know if that means the league is better or worse than it’s been in years past, necessarily. So, there you have it. Will it be a down year for the SEC? All those words for a resounding “I have no clue.”

8. Could we be surprised with a reserve making a big leap forward?

Nick: In short, yes. For this question, we’re mainly talking about Plavsic, Gaines or Nkamhoua, and if you made me pick a candidate I’d probably narrow it down to Plavsic or Nkamhoua and then flip a coin. For all the improvements Tennessee made to its roster, post depth could still be a concern, so it’s not that I think Plavsic or Nkamhoua are necessarily better players than Gaines but that the two big guys will have more opportunities for playing time than Gaines will have on the wing.

Gaines endeared himself to the fans and coaching staff with his hustle and staunch defense, but he plays on the perimeter and the Vols are just loaded out there this year. The skinny sophomore will play, but I don’t see him getting minutes over Bailey, Springer, Johnson or James, do you?