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How confident should Tennessee fans be about the basketball program right now?

An honest assessment of where Tennessee basketball stands heading into 2021.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oregon State at Tennessee IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

As Tennessee basketball gets ready to send off another batch of players to the NBA, I found myself sitting down and thinking about the program’s recent history.

Admittedly, I don’t have the context that many readers do. I’ve only known Tennessee basketball as it exists in the current millennia, and only have a vivid memory dating back to the Bruce Pearl days. Despite this short frame of reference, I have somehow witnessed four different coaches leading the basketball program, along with some of the more legendary seasons in program history. Suffice to say, my perception of Tennessee basketball might be a bit skewed.

But in my thought process, I began throwing around the dreaded question...what’s the program ceiling? I’ve asked and answered it before for football and softball, and now I seriously wonder the same for basketball. Maybe it’s the natural thought process after a depressing first round exit, or an elite recruiting class, or any combination of factors. It just sticks in my mind whenever I try to brainstorm for the next season.

Unfortunately, I’m still working through that thought process now. However! I did toy around with a “Self Evaluation” idea, and modify it for this article. A convenient way of judging not just Tennessee’s basketball program, but other sports and teams as well.

Let’s call it...Clint Eiland’s 5 Tiers of Fandom Feeling. Doesn’t roll off the tongue like Neyland’s 7 Maxims, but it’ll do.

The Confidence Rating

Essentially, I try to evaluate the question: How confident are you in the basketball program as it stands heading into next season?

5 - Very Confident. Tennessee basketball is meeting expectations and then some. Rick Barnes has constructed a roster with zero holes and good depth. Recruiting brings in high level talents, which translates to superior on court results. The apex of sports fandom.

4 - Mostly Confident. Tennessee basketball is meeting expectations, but not necessarily going above and beyond. They still put together good seasons with plenty of highlights. Questions remain about certain players/positions on the team, but the questions are usually not big enough to draw negative conclusions about direction of the program. This is also a desirable spot to be in, and truthfully, most decent college basketball programs fall into this tier.

3 - Losing Confidence. Tennessee basketball is not meeting expectations. There are still good players and some good games, but as a whole the team is not winning enough in either the regular season or the tournament. Recruiting is okay but attrition is becoming an issue. There are roster holes on the team which are not easily solved, and some developments make fans question how “in control” the staff really is.

2 - Little Confidence. Tennessee basketball is falling well below the reasonable expectations. Whatever bright spots exist are quickly overshadowed by a disappointing performance. Roster issues are amplified and readily apparent, with few quick fixes in either the transfer portal or recruiting classes. Players are not being developed. Fan base is now skeptical that the current coaching staff is the answer. Commonly, this is the stage where “Win or get fired” becomes real.

1 - No Confidence. Tennessee basketball is falling below reasonable expectations and has no positive developments to point to. Lack of recruiting success has left the roster destitute. Fan apathy sets in as it becomes apparent the bad results have become the norm. If not already fired, coaches have a foot out the door in preparation for a firing. Start up the coaching hot board!

Some Notes and Ramblings

I’d say Tennessee is at a 3.5 right about now.

I think that Tennessee basketball has largely met their regular season expectations. The Volunteers have notched a good amount of both in-conference and out-of-conference victories against quality opponents. Aside from the blip of a 2020 season, Tennessee has remained a presence in the top 25 and a contender for the conference championship.

The postseason is a different story. Rick Barnes has not satisfied many with his results to this point. The Sweet 16 run that ended against Purdue was likely the one time that Tennessee came close to reaching their postseason expectations—but even in that year, they were considered a Final Four contender.

Some of that is luck obviously. We all just witnessed Oregon State make a run to the Elite Eight out of nowhere. But at some point luck can’t be the reason for years of falling short.

I still wouldn’t call that a wash. Tennessee’s results in the regular season do have weight to them, because it’s a much larger sample size of how a team performs. It’s also not like Tennessee is a very prestigious basketball program that expects deep tournament runs every single year. They’ve met expectations on the courts overall...even if the end of season results leave a sour taste.

Instead, I think some of the push to the “Losing Confidence” tier has to do with the roster holes and player progression.

It’s no secret that Rick Barnes has had trouble both recruiting and developing frontcourt players. We saw it this past year, when Tennessee had around 4 to 5 different options down low to pair with John Fulkerson— yet none of them played well enough to outright win a job. Even though a couple were considered high level recruits. The only guy who could reasonably fit was Yves Pons, but he was not a true frontcourt piece that the team has in mind. Even Tennessee’s transfer forward, E.J. Anosike, did not find the success we thought he would find.

The point is punctuated by the recent transfer news. Anosike, sophomore forward Drew Pember, and freshman forward Corey Walker Jr. have all entered the transfer portal. All three were considered potential options at the traditional power forward spot.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Tennessee
Behold, a rare frontcourt player!
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

This is where I think concerns are justified. Tennessee has struggled mightily to figure out the frontcourt in recent years, all the way from player development to recruiting. It’s not completely barren—but for whatever reason, they can’t find reliable depth.

There is a glimmer of hope, however. In the 2022 class, Tennessee recently gained a commitment from a top-100 center in Jonas Aidoo. They are also the frontrunners for 2022 5-star forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, who may be reclassifying to 2021.

Could these two be the answer that Tennessee has been looking for in the frontcourt? A solid “maybe”.

Aidoo is more of a project than Huntley-Hatfield, but both have very high ceilings and are more proven as players than many of Tennessee’s recent forward/center recruits. In there lies some of the worries though—Tennessee has to bet on two true freshmen coming in and getting major minutes. Huntley-Hatfield is probably ready for that. Is Aidoo?

Add in the departures of Tennessee’s two best scorers (Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer) and best defender (Yves Pons) and that means they’ll once again be relying on incoming players to carry the load. That’s good news for someone like Kennedy Chandler, but it doesn’t inspire confidence that Tennessee is set up all that well for the next couple of seasons. Especially if Chandler is a 1-and-done.

I’ll admit that I am feeling a little worse about Tennessee basketball entering the 2021 season than I was entering the 2020 season. The rough ending to the season, coupled with some of the head-scratching roster decisions, has left me wondering how much of this Rick Barnes actually anticipated.

If you want the positive response to that, it does look like Barnes is fully aware of the task at hand. He needs some immediate help in the frontcourt, and the basketball staff is leaving no stone unturned. We need to see how that venture turns out for the rest of the recruiting class/transfer class, but the effort is certainly there.

What do you think? What number would you give the Tennessee basketball program heading into 2021?