In 2018-2019, Tennessee won 31 games. In the two seasons since, the Vols have won just 35 games.
While there’s never just one reason a team loses games, with Tennessee, there has been a consistent theme underscoring the team’s struggles: the lack of an inside presence.
Since Grant Williams left, John Fulkerson’s been the Vols’ only consistent and reliable big man. And Fulkerson wasn’t great last season, adjusting his role to accommodate the presence of one-and-done guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer. This lack of dynamic post players has had one consequence that stands out above (or below?) the rest: the Vols have been a sub-par rebounding group.
Last year, per Bart Torvik, Tennessee posted a 31.3 offensive rebounding percentage that was the 69th-best figure in the country. But Tennessee’s defensive rebounding percentage was significantly worse at 28.7 and 209th overall. It was basically the same story in 2020: offensive rebounding percentage was 30.5 and 95th overall, while defensively the number was 30.1 and 274th in the country.
If you’re more a fan of traditional stats, here’s the last two season’s offensive and defensive rebounding per-game and total numbers:
- 10th in total ORBs
- 10th in O-RBs per game
- 11th in total D-RBs
- 10th in D-RBs per game
- 11th in total RBs
- 10th in total RBs per game
- 9th in total O-RBs
- 11th in O-RBs per game
- 7th in total D-RBs
- 9th in D-RBS per game
- 9th in total RBs
- 9th in total RBs per game
“We’ve got to improve our defensive rebounding. We led the league in some (defensive) categories, but we were the worst in the league in defensive rebounding. And if you can’t rebound the ball, none of the other things really matter.”
That was Rick Barnes in the preseason last year, and from the various stats above we can see that Tennessee did get better on the boards from ‘19-’20 to ‘20-’21, though the improvement was more incremental and less radical.
With half of the roster getting turned over in the offseason, Fulkerson, Nkamhoua and Plavsic are the only returning big men on the Vols’ roster, and of that group only Fulky has played extended minutes. He’s been a full-time starter for two seasons and is averaging 5.7 rebounds per-game during those two years. With Nkamhoua and Plavsic, looking at their per-game figures won’t do us much good, since they don’t play as much on a per-game basis. Instead, we’ll look at their per 40-minute numbers to try and weed out some of the distortion caused by their lack of playing time.
Nkamhoua and Plavsic posted 7.5 and 9.6 rebounds per-40, ranking sixth and tied for first on the team, respectively. Those numbers are encouraging, though the sample size is small for both guys with Nkamhoua playing 171 minutes and Plavsic playing just 71. (For context: the guys who played most regularly for Tennessee all played at least 600 minutes.)
In the interest of accuracy, since these sample sizes are small, If we widen the scope and look at the pair’s career per-40 averages, we see that Nkamhoua’s got a 9.6 figure and Plavsic a 6.8. Plavsic’s rebounding numbers were much better last year than his freshman season, so perhaps that’s him progressing, and an indication that we can expect him to be a reliable rebounder this season. On the other hand, Nkamhoua’s numbers decreased from his freshman to his sophomore season, but his career per-minute rebounding number is still really solid. I don’t know what roles these guys will have, and their playing time won’t be decided by rebounding numbers alone. Either way, there’s the information, and you’re free to make whatever conclusion from it you’d like.
Before last year, the staff added EJ Anosike via the transfer portal, but that apparently didn’t work out as he transferred back out to Cal State Fullerton after the lone season in Knoxville. This offseason, Tennessee didn’t add any post players from the transfer portal, which is a bit concerning, though it wasn’t from lack of trying. The Vols recruited a couple big guys during the rush of transfers post March Madness, missing on former 5-star C Walker Kessler who left UNC for Auburn and Jayden Gardner who went from ECU to Virginia.
In short, while the Vols have a few competent pieces with possible upside, Tennessee’s gonna need production from the freshmen. The Vols added three players 6-9 or taller in this class in 5-star (reclassified) F Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, four-star C Jonas Aidoo, who was the highest-rated prospect in North Carolina last cycle, and 3-star (reclassified) C Handje Tamba from Catholic.
(The last time UT added that amount of tall guys in one offseason was 2019 when Barnes signed Olivier Nkamhoua and Drew Pember out of high school while adding Uros Plavsic in the transfer market. And, uhh, while we’re on the topic: Barnes’ big-man recruiting has been a bit suspect during his time as Tennessee’s coach. Since 2016 and not counting the most recent class, Barnes signed 10 post prospects. Grant Williams and Fulkerson are the only two bonafide successes, with the juries still out on Olivier Nkamhoua and Uros Plavsic. Maybe signing BHH is this tide turning for Barnes.)
While the star ratings look good on paper, I’m worried the trio’s highly-rated reputation is gonna breed unwarranted expectations. Full disclosure: I was ALL IN on how good last year’s team was going to be, and I’m probably a bit gun shy when it comes to my expectations of highly-rated freshmen. I feel like I should cop to that so y’all know it could be skewing my viewpoint.
Outside of those in the program, nobody has gotten a great look at any of them on a college hoops’ court yet other than the practice/scrimmage held on the Saturday of the Ole Miss game. It was a split-squad exhibition, so there’s not much one can usefully discern in that type of one-off setting. Still, a few notes:
- Aidoo didn’t dress for the game. But even in street clothes, it seems he’s gonna need some time to put on weight. I came away doubting his 234 listed weight. He’s never been a banger inside — he’s a new-age big man who has 3-point range and likes to block shots. I worry that his game doesn’t mesh with what Barnes expects of his big men. Remember Zach Kent? He wanted to step out and shoot the ball instead of play under the rim, and we all know how that played out.
- BHH looks the part physically. He’s broad and bigger than I expected. He looks every bit of his listed 246-pound weight. Just a guess, but I’d say he’s closer to 6-9 than to his listed 6-10. He was pretty aggressive rebounding and even flashed some slick interior passing ability. Just looking at him, I can see why the coaches offered him the reclassification spot.
- If Tamba’s 6-11, then so is BHH. But they’re not. Not a big deal though. He’s also got some uumph to his frame and was bigger than I expected. I don’t imagine him being quite the shot-blocking presence he was at Catholic and can see him needing time to adjust to the speed of the college game.
I don’t want to come across all negative here, like I don’t think these guys are good players, or that they can’t eventually help Tennessee win games. Neither statement is true. But as reclassifications, two of the three are playing a full year ahead of the normal schedule for HS to college transitions, and Aidoo doesn’t look like a guy who’s ready to contribute from the word go. In his defense, he did play what amounted to be an extra year of HS ball, so perhaps his wiry frame belies his readiness for this level. I just wouldn’t be surprised if Tennessee’s problems down low persist, especially early in the season.
There is an exhibition game coming up this Saturday at TBA at 3 PM as the Vols host Lenoir-Rhyne. Maybe we’ll get a better look at the young cats then. If nothing else, we should get at least a taste of who Barnes is planning to have in the playing time rotation. I’ll be there — if you go, come say “hey.” I’ll be the guy in the orange shirt.
Before I go — a beam of sunshine in this somewhat cloudy post: Josiah Jordan-James.
He was a combo guard in high school, and I think fans expected him to come in and be the point guard Tennessee’s so desperately needed over the last few years. While that hasn’t and won’t happen, James has found a niche on the wing as a player who does lots of things really well. For instance, he was the only player last year to average at least one block and one steal, and at just 6-6, he was the team’s best rebounder based on his per-game averages and basically every other metric (first in total rebounding percentage: 13.8; first in total rebounds per 100 possessions: 14.0; first in rebounds per 40-minutes: 9.6) available. I can see Tennessee running out a three-guard lineup with Chandler, Vescovi and Bailey up top where James plays the four and Fulkerson the five.
With the combination of Fulkerson, Nkamhoua, Plavsic and the three tall, incoming freshman, spiced up with JJJ rebounding from the wing or playing some power forward, Barnes has some options for figuring out how to make the Vols better on the boards. Winning the rebounding battle and winning games don’t always go hand-in-hand, but Tennessee finished fourth in the SEC on the boards when the Vols won 31 games in ‘18-’19. Correlation /=/ causation and all, but solving this two-season long deficiency would undoubtedly be to Tennessee’s benefit.