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Vol hoops picked first in the SEC on KenPom, Bart Torvik

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Tennessee’s facing some lofty preseason expectations again, but it’s difficult to know just how good, or bad, the Vols will be this year

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Ken Pomeroy and Bart Torvik both recently released their preseason college basketball rankings, and the Vols are the highest-rated SEC team on both sites.

KenPom has Tennessee ranked 13th, while Bart Torvik has the Vols slotted just one spot lower at 14th.

Pomeroy’s rankings have Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama and Florida also in the top-25 at 15th, 17th, 19th and 25, respectively, while Torvik’s has Alabama, Kentucky, Auburn and Florida at 15th, 17th, 20th and 23rd, respectively.

For some context, the AP also recently released its CBB preseason rankings and has Kentucky (10th), Alabama (14th), Arkansas (16th) all ahead of the 18th-ranked Vols while Auburn sits at 22nd and is the last SEC team in the top-25.

KenPom and Torvik’s rankings are strictly numbers-based, so there’s no inherent biases involved in their predictions. Nothing like, ya know, maybe having Kentucky ranked too high, even though the Wildcats went 9-16 last year, because Kentucky’s a perennial college basketball powerhouse and why would that be any different this season?

(I actually don’t think Kentucky is really that overrated. Kentucky’s reloaded, again, and it looks like Calipari acknowledged that maybe he should sign guys who can shoot.)

Personally, I don’t typically put much stock into preseason polls, whether they’re compiled by using last year’s stats or from a compilation of media members’ opinions. I figure most Vol fans remember when the 2018 Tennessee team was picked 13th in the SEC during the preseason and went on to win 31 games and a share of the SEC regular-season title. (6th-year, super-senior John Fulkerson was a sophomore on that team and is the only player from that roster still playing for UT.)

While one blatant miss doesn’t prove preseason polls as worthless, it does reinforce the idea that they’re just educated guesses made before the games are played. Gonzaga and Baylor were No. 1 and No. 2 in last season’s AP preseason poll and ended up playing for the championship. Shrug.

This season’s Tennessee team and its preseason rankings is an interesting case. While somewhere in the mid-teens to early-20s is probably a pretty accurate general area to have the Vols, it’s difficult to know what to expect from this team. Tennessee’s got plenty of question marks.

The Vols are losing much of its offensive production and three excellent defenders in now NBA players Keon Johnson, Jaden Springer and Yves Pons. In total, seven players from last year aren’t on the team anymore. And while Barnes inked a highly-rated recruiting class, it’s more difficult than usual to predict that class’s eventual impact given that three of the seven signees are players who reclassified from the 2022 class and enrolled early at Tennessee.

Forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield was a top-10 player in the ‘22 cycle but saw his ranking drop to 25th once he reclassified to 2021. 3-star C Handje Tamba and 3-star PG Zakai Zeigler were both previously rising high-school seniors and late additions to the 2021 class, with Tamba committing in late July just before enrolling in August, while Zeigler impressed Vol coaches at a summer tournament and then visited, committed and enrolled at Tennessee in late August.

The Vols added those guys to class with 5-star PG Kennedy Chandler, 4-star wing Jahmai Mashack, 4-star F/C Jonas Aidoo and 3-star guard Quentin Diboundje. Combined, all these guys made the country’s fourth-best recruiting class per 247. Guard Justin Powell transferred in from Auburn, and though he only played in 10 games for the Tigers last year, he should provide some much-needed outside shooting and might draw some secondary ball-handling duties.

Preseason projections are always an inexact science. The Vols have a solid core of returning players led by Fulkerson, Santiago Vescovi and Josiah Jordan-James, but for the team to meet these preseason expectations, it’s gonna need consistent contributions from several newcomers. I’m just not quite sold on that assertion yet.