Saturday’s loss to Auburn was shocking, embarrassing, infuriating, and...disappointing. That last one has become an all-too common descriptor for the 2019-2020 Tennessee basketball season. Sitting at 15-12 overall with a .500 SEC record has given fans plenty to think about with the realization that the NCAA tournament is likely out of reach.
Everyone expected a step back from the high point of 2018-2019. When you lose your three best players and three rotational pieces, there’s really nowhere to go but down. Not a Tennessee fan alive was thinking they’d go 31-6 again.
But if I may speak for the crowd here: Not many were thinking Tennessee would be out of the NCAA tournament running by mid-February.
Now, stranger things have happened. Tennessee could run the table the rest of the year, get to 19-12 before the SEC tournament, and notch a couple resume-building wins on their way to a low seed. They could even split the remaining games and then go on a run in the aforementioned tournament before once again grabbing a lower seed. But these are far-out hypotheticals that most are rightly skeptical about. In reality, it’s much more likely Tennessee finishes something like 16-16 on the season and squeaks into the NIT.
That’s not just a step back. That’s a tumble in the wrong direction.
Any good faith discussion of the 2019-2020 season has to grapple with the injury and transfer situations. Above all, the injury to guard Lamonte Turner derailed season expectations before the team had much of a chance to gel together. Turner was expected to be one of—if not the best—offensive options on the team. Now we’ll never get to know if what team built around him could do. His injury alone moved the expectations from “Likely NCAA tournament team” to “Questionable”.
In his absence, everyone expected Jordan Bowden to take the mantle as the offensive juggernaut. That finally occurred against Auburn...26 games into the season.
The silver lining to this development is guard Santiago Vescovi, of course. The midseason enrollee surpassed all expectations by grabbing a starting spot in less than a month, while quickly becoming one of the best players on the team. He’s still learning consistency, but Vescovi’s shooting ability and flashy style are quickly making him a fan favorite.
But even Vescovi can’t cover up the harsh reality that one of Tennessee’s biggest weaknesses was one that was ill addressed by Rick Barnes: The frontcourt.
Three of the departures from last year’s team were Kyle Alexander, Derrick Walker, and D.J. Burns. In quick succession the Vols lost a proven senior, a potential starter, and one of their high upside developmental prospects.
That left them with John Fulkerson and a bunch of freshmen.
Without trying to be overly critical: I think there’s an issue when John Fulkerson is your best frontcourt player. Don’t get me wrong, Fulkerson has come into his own this year and impressed as a starting option. He’s proven a lot of people wrong—mainly the ones who thought he would be a net negative as a starter.
But everyone admits that Fulkerson has a pretty hard ceiling. He’s not that athletic, he doesn’t have a “shooting range” to speak of, and he can get foul prone on defense. His ceiling is that of a quality starter. If he is the best option you have, something has gone wrong.
Barnes attempted a stop-gap solution with transfer center Uros Plavsic. But that went haywire, as Plavsic missed the first half of the season in NCAA limbo, before finally being able to play with his team. Early returns aren’t impressive. While most of it probably has to do with learning the scheme and getting used to college basketball, Plavsic isn’t the immediate help we thought he would be.
Barnes obviously could not predict an injury to his best player, or a bizarre NCAA ruling, or any myriad of weird circumstances with this years team.
So what has he done wrong?
Barnes is responsible for doing the most he can with what he has on the roster. So far, he hasn’t been able to tap into their potential.
The most distressing part of this season is the lack of encouraging pieces for next season. Besides Vescovi, what player really inspires confidence that 2021 will be a reloaded squad? Yves Pons blooming into a show stopping defender is very positive, but he still doesn’t address the big weakness...which is, putting the ball into the basket. Touted recruit Josiah-Jordan James is coming along very slowly and still experiences games where he does absolutely nothing on offense.
That leads us to the conundrum down low. None of the big guys impressed this season beyond Fulkerson, despite a massive need. Olivier Nkamhoua flashed early on but that’s it. It’s also obvious he needs a lot more seasoning—ditto with fellow true freshman Drew Pember. Relying on two raw big men to be the answer for 2021 doesn’t emanate confidence.
Turner and Bowden graduating also means they’re hoping that Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer are able to step right in and provide the offensive spark the team is missing. Which isn’t necessarily a bad bet—they’re 5-stars for a reason—but it’s not what you had in mind. Ideally, those two would come in and be a rotational piece or eventual starter. Not the load-bearer for your offense.
An old saying holds true: You can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can always choose how to respond. So far, Barnes hasn’t crafted the best response to this season’s troubles.
Yes, I do think Barnes has disappointed this season. I think he hasn’t fully maximized this team’s talent, and I think there’s a lot of risk in how he has set up next year’s squad. The main hope is that players take their lumps this season and come back in 2020-2021 with a team better prepared to withstand injuries.
None of this indicates Barnes is a bad coach. He just led the program to one of its best seasons of all time, and he’s now bringing in two players for next season who will be among the highest rated recruits in program history. The pieces for a huge bounce back next year are still there.
It just stings how this season has played out, and it’s a small mark on a coach whose career with Tennessee has otherwise been nothing but encouraging.