Appearing on the March Madness 365 podcast with Andy Katz this week, Rick Barnes talked through a number of things. But one thing became clear — Barnes is just as excited as the rest of us are about his team next year.
Tennessee struggled through a transitional season this year after losing four players to the NBA. That forced growth from John Fulkerson and Yves Pons, who were pushed into primary roles. Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James took their lumps as freshmen, something that should benefit them going forward.
The Volunteers return those four while adding a historical recruiting class, which features three top 50 players. Five-star guards Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson will add some much needed pop to the Tennessee backcourt, while four-star wing Corey Walker Jr. gives Tennessee more length.
Barnes told Katz that he’s excited about the mentality that Springer and Johnson will bring to the defensive side.
“I think Jaden and Keon, I think both of those guys bring a level of tenacity,” Barnes told Katz. “They’re big-time competitors. They both have the ability to be just terrific, terrific defensive players. Both of them just are now scratching the surface of what they will become as offensive players, but their pitbull, bulldog type attitudes are gonna give us something on the perimeter that we need.”
Tennessee adds those three into the mix, along with transfer point guard Victor Bailey and forward E.J. Anosike. Those two veterans should bring stability to the roster, creating an opportunity for the Volunteers to legitimately rotate up to 10 or 11 players.
“We’re going to be different in some ways,” Barnes said. “We’re gonna have depth. I think we’re gonna be a much better defensive team. I think we’ll rebound the ball better. I think we’ll be able to beat people off the bounce more.
“I’m excited about our team going forward. I just think that we’ve got some good players coming in that’s gonna help us, and I do know the guys coming back are gonna work hard and get better.”
Tennessee has already been selected as a top 15 team by multiple outlets for next season. That could rise even more as more NBA declarations are made. Kentucky is the clear favorite to win the SEC currently, but the Volunteers have slotted into that No. 2 hole for now. With the growth that we saw last season and what Barnes is bringing in, it’s easy to see why.
“We’re just excited,” Barnes admitted. “I think think we’ll have as good a chance as anybody next year.”