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Vol Hoops’ offseason roster outlook

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Taking an early look at what Tennessee’s roster could look like.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020-2021 season is behind us, and though its ending was undoubtedly disappointing, there are reasons to be optimistic about next year’s team.

Sitting squarely atop that list is incoming point guard Kennedy Chandler. He’s the fourth 5-star guard Tennessee’s signed in the last three cycles and will likely be the focal point of next year’s team. I’ll touch on him a bit more down below. Chandler is a sure thing but is currently surrounded by some unknowns as the Vols’ roster is set to undergo some serious renovations this offseason.

Reserves Drew Pember and Davonte Gaines have both announced they’re in search of new opportunities, and while I have no absolute information here, I would imagine both moves were encouraged by the staff. That’s no knock on Pember or Gaines — it just doesn’t make sense for those guys or the schools for them to stay at Tennessee and play as sporadically as they did last year.

Jaden Springer, last season’s leading scorer and second-leading, uh, assist-er...(?), assist-making guy...(?) declared for the draft and hired an agent, officially ending his Tennessee career. Before the season, he was seen as a more NBA-ready prospect than Keon Johnson, but he didn’t display much elite athleticism and failed to take over a Tennessee team in need of a true point guard and on-the-court leader. Who knows where he ends up being selected, but somewhere in the teens is my bet.

Fellow freshman Keon Johnson is expected to do the same, quite literally any day now. One thing he didn’t lack was elite athleticism — he probably grades out as one of the best all-around athletes in this draft class. His stock looks to have topped out somewhere in the back half of the NBA’s lottery with most mock drafts having him in the 8-10 range. He’s an explosive athlete and fierce competitor who teams will draft-and-stash as he figures out the rest of the pro game.

Yves Pons and John Fulkerson are both technically seniors, but the NCAA is basically giving all the players a mulligan with the 2020-21 season, so if they want to return and play another season, they, and any other senior, can. I don’t think either has any NBA future, though Pons is an NBA athlete and could make himself a very fine living playing overseas. I see no downside to Fulkerson returning to Tennessee for one more run, but his senior day send-off was pretty emotional, and he sure didn’t look like somebody who was coming back for another season.

With Pember, Gaines, Springer, Johnson and, let’s say, Pons, gone, that leaves:

GUARDS

  • Santi Vescovi, JR.
  • Victor Bailey , SR.
  • Josiah-Jordan James, JR.
  • Kennedy Chandler, FR.

FORWARDS

  • John Fulkerson, double SR.
  • Olivier Nkamhoua, JR.
  • Corey Walker, SO.
  • Jahmai Mashack, FR.

CENTERS

  • Uros Plavsic, JR.
  • EJ Anosike, SR.

I have the years listed with normal progression because I don’t know how all that is going to work out. Will every player just stay the same year as last season? Will some who don’t care change, and those who want the extra year get it? So, yeah.

That team HAS A POINT GUARD YAY, but scoring could be as hard to find as toilet paper at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both of ‘21’s leading scorers (Springer, Johnson) will be gone, though scorers three-through-five (Bailey, Fulky, Vescovi) could be back. Still — as is, this team might have more luck wishing for baskets than shooting them.

There is no way Head Coach Rick Barnes and staff look at that roster and feel like it’s acceptable going into next season. Surely Barnes has a contingency plan in place, right? In 2019, after Grant Williams and Jordan Bone went to the NBA with one year of eligibility remaining, the staff added five freshmen (James, Gaines, Pember, Nkamhoua and Vescovi at mid-year) and two transfers (Uros at mid-year and Bailey who had to sit out).

— OPTION ONE —

The transfer portal. That name is cooler than it deserves to be, as it’s nothing more than the group of players taking advantage of the NCAA’s ruling that any player can go anywhere without penalty. Note: after this season is over, the NCAA is expected to vote and approve a one-time transfer rule for the future that allows, you guessed it, student athletes to transfer anywhere once without having to sit out.

As expected, the transfer portal is absolutely loaded. There are estimates of an eventual 1,500-ish players jumping in before next season, so given the sheer mass of options, I expect the roster get flipped like it’s in the cirque du soleil. It’s likely that the usuals, Kentucky (Kellan Grady ALREADY), Duke, Kansas, etc., all clean up in the transfer market, but there’s enough at this table for everybody to eat. Here’s some early, possible names:

I wish I could give you more about who Tennessee has a shot at, but I just don’t have that info. The man to follow for this stuff is apparently Jeff Borzello from ESPN. Here’s a link for his Twitter.

Grant Ramey also did some words about possible transfers for the Vols. I like Grant, so I’m gonna link you to his thing here.

And, here’s 247Sports list of players actively in the portal, though I can’t help but feel like they doinked an easy bunny by not naming it the PORTAL TRACKER.

— OPTION TWO —

Adding to the recruiting class. The ‘21 class is all but wrapped up, but maybe Barnes has a metaphorical ace up his sleeve.

There are rumors circulating that class of ‘22 forward and 5-star Brandon Huntley-Hatfield may reclassify and be a part of Tennessee’s ‘21 class. I have no links for this rumor, because it’s just that — a rumor. He’s an elite forward who’s big and skilled. His addition could be, like, I dunno, worth five-ish wins? That might sound a touch brazen, and maybe it is. But he does basketball good.

(Brief aside — the Vols have allegedly positioned themselves well with class of ‘22 Knoxville Catholic 4-star guard BJ Edwards and 3-star center Handje Tamba.)

Personally, I’m putting exactly zero eggs in the BHH reclassifying basket for a couple reasons: 1) because this is Tennessee, and as fans we’re conditioned to expect the bad and prepare for the worst; 2) He’s a 5-star that UK wants and is a cousin of former Wildcat Alex Poythress. He might not reclassify, and he might not even end up here. Who knows?

But — landing BHH in the same class as Chandler would lessen the sting of missing out on Paolo Banchero, Jabari Smith and every other post player we recruited for the ‘21 cycle.

< If you’re a fellow masochist, and, honestly, if you’re a Tennessee football fan you qualify, here’s Jabari Smith (No. 5 overall) talking about how there was chatter of him joining Chandler and Mashack at Tennessee with Harrison Ingram (No. 12 overall) and Paolo Banchero (No. 3 overall). I was so amped at just the possibility of Banchero and Chandler —but boyyyy, this woulda been dumb nice. I would have been INSUFFERABLE online. >

/ wipes tear /

As is, Tennessee’s class is ranked 35th in the country according to 247’s rankings. Chandler is the No. 2 point guard in the country and one of the country’s top incoming freshmen.

Note: (JD Davison is 247’s No. 1 point guard and is going to Alabama. Watch Oates and Arkansas’ Eric Musselman over the next few years. Kids are drawn to the styles those two employ like Southerners are drawn to dry cornbread.)

He could be one of, if not the best point guard to ever suit up for the Vols. That might sound like hyperbole, but Chandler is that good. He’s not built like Pons or Josiah-Jordan James, but he’s not necessarily slight either. He’s a blur in transition and a adept finisher, and while I would probably classify him as more of a pass-first point guard, he can absolutely score and will have to next season for the Vols.

This video is about a year old now, but it’s Chandler hooping with several other D-1 guys and Memphis Grizzlies’ guard Ja Morant. It’s just pickup, so grain-of-salt and all, but judging by the noise level in the gym, these guys were taking it pretty serious. I’ve watched it before, and I still watched it again.

4-star wing Jahmai Mashack is Tennessee’s other ‘21 signee. He’s listed at 6-5, 190 and looks EVERY BIT OF IT. He’s just an incoming freshman but has the build of somebody who’s spent time reaping the benefits of an NCAA workout/ meal plan. His muscles have muscles, his arms look like helicopter blades and his defense looks college-ready now. Let’s hope the offense, which shows a tinge of polish, catches up soon. My final, amateur opinion on Mashack; be patient. Some are gonna be leery of a player in the defense-first/ offensive project archetype, but to them I say welcome to my hell as a fan of the Orlando Magic. The water is not fine. But seriously, give him some time.

This is going to be an important offseason for Rick Barnes after the disappointment of a first-round exit for a team with what’s likely to be two NBA lottery selections. As if a roster needing a total somersault isn’t difficult enough, to muck things up further, Barnes could be working with an almost entirely new coaching staff.

Former assistant Kim English took the George Mason job, while, according to VolQuest’s Rob Lewis, Desmond Oliver is in play for Austin Peay’s head coach search. I would rather Oliver stick around — replacing one assistant in an offseason is enough for my taste. I’d say I’m not alone in that preference.

I have no idea how it all shapes up, but the construction of this team needs to be addressed. Uros played 27 total minutes and got a start in Tennessee’s last two games because of Fulkerson’s injury. He hadn’t logged more than six (6) minutes in a game all season prior. Tennessee scored 19 (!!!) points in the first half of that eventual season-ending loss to Oregon State, and only six players logged more than 20 minutes, with two (Springer, Johnson) of those six gone and another (Pons) unlikely to return.

It’s shaping up to be quite an eventful offseason.