After the year Tennessee is coming off of, nobody can blame Rick Barnes for being excited for next year. Barnes watched Grant Williams and Jordan Bone enter the NBA draft early last offseason, following seniors Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander to the league. He watched four of his five starters exit the program, then lost one of his two senior leaders in Lamonte Turner for the year in December.
It was a tough road, but to Tennessee’s credit, they didn’t lay down. John Fulkerson and Yves Pons emerged a big time players, while mid-season addition point guard Santiago Vescovi worked out the kinks to become a spark plug for the offense. That hard work kept Tennessee on the NCAA Tournament bubble, even resulting in an upset of Kentucky at Rupp Arena in the final week of the season.
Now with those three set to return along with Josiah-Jordan James, Barnes is set to add the most decorated recruiting class in Tennessee history. Five-star guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer will join the fold, along with four-star wing Corey Walker. Oregon transfer Victor Bailey will stabilize the backcourt and give Tennessee another veteran, along with forward E.J. Anosike, who will transfer in from Sacred Heart.
“We’re excited,” Barnes said on the Aaron Torres podcast. “We’re all excited. I know the players are excited, they’re all chomping at the bit to get back. The coaches are. We think we have a chance to possibly have the best defensive team we’ve had since we’ve been here.”
The Tennessee defense will return SEC defensive player of the year Yves Pons to the lineup, who flipped from a reserve wing to a legitimate rim protector as a hybrid forward last season. But Barnes is also excited to get this recruiting class to Knoxville, something that he says will improve his program’s competitiveness and toughness.
“Jaden Springer, he and Keon Johnson, were guys that we targeted really three years ago,” Barnes said. “Corey Walker. Those were guys that we targeted and we knew we wanted them to be part of our program. They’re very talented, high-level skill players. They are. And what we like about those guys as much as anything is the fact that they’ll bite you. You know what I mean by that? They’re very competitive. We’re really excited about that.”
Both Johnson and Springer are ranked inside of the top 25 players in the 2021 class, per 247Sports. Walker ranks 40th in those same rankings, projecting as a hybrid forward.
Tennessee could legitimately go 10 or 11 deep this season, depending on what they want to do with a few potential redshirt situations. That’s depth they haven’t had in a long time, to go along with elite talent that perhaps they’ve never had.
“What we’ve added, as much as anything, offensively we have guys we think that can break people down off the dribble a little more than we’ve had in the past,” Barnes said. “We think we can do some of that. But again, there’s not one guy that we signed that doesn’t have the ability to really lock in and guard someone one-on-one. That’s what we’re really excited about.”