I’m going to do something I’ve never done for a sports article. In fact, you might never see this again, even if you are an avid reader. I’m going to spoil the piece in the first few paragraphs.
Today, we are discussing Tennessee basketball and the health of the program. I am asking two questions:
(1) What’s the status of the program?
(2) What should you expect next season?
If you want the short answers, here they are.
(1) Good but stagnant.
(2) Not much, maybe a tournament appearance, but nothing special.
There. If you have something else to do, you can go ahead and just scroll through the rest.
If you’re still here, let’s discuss.
A bizarre ending
The obvious focal point will be the encouraging—but then somewhat disappointing—tournament run. Most Tennessee fans really only predicted a single win, if that. Most assumed that they would get bounced in the second round. Once Zakai Zeigler went down late in the regular season, you had to have known that Tennessee’s offense would stagnate at some point. Most assumed that would happen against Duke.
As we all know, that’s not what transpired. Instead, Tennessee went ahead and knocked Duke out of the tournament in the second round, providing one of the more shocking victories on their way to the Sweet 16. Tennessee was then matched up with 9-seed Florida Atlantic. Many had penciled in Tennessee to advance to the Elite Eight.
People who did this were obviously not Tennessee fans. Because, as we have grown to expect with Rick Barnes, Tennessee fell flat against an opponent that they really could have beat.
And somehow, in a season where Tennessee beat expectations, they still managed to find a way to disappoint at the end.
If it’s too negative, I apologize. I think a lot of fans should have a positive look on the season overall. 20+ wins, multiple ranked victories, and a solid top-10 ranking for most of the year is good no matter how you slice it. It shows a high floor, and for a while there it looked like Tennessee had all the pieces to propel themselves to No. 1 overall. A rough end to the season and losing Zeigler may be affecting the overall perception.
Ziegler’s impact was clear as day, and we all knew that the team had lost a huge piece of its roster. If Zeigler had played for that FAU game, who knows what could’ve happened. His absence down the stretch proved costly, and you could honestly argue that Tennessee’s Sweet 16 trip was an over-performance.
But at the end of the day, things were lining up for Tennessee to appear in the Elite Eight. We can rightfully point out the program’s lack of deep tournament runs in its history, but that doesn’t actually excuse what happened. Do you know how many Elite Eights (and for that matter now, Final Fours) FAU has appeared in? Zero, before this season.
Tennessee is not the only team that gets unlucky in the postseason. They just seem to be the team that hasn’t defied that unluckiness at least once.
Look. It’s hard to win in March. Even some coaches we all regard as the greatest in the sport have had to fight narratives that they disappear in March. As an example, look at what people were saying about Jay Wright before Villanova‘s 2016 season. Really, all you need is a couple of deep runs, and you can shake the stigma. That has not occurred for Barnes in 15 years.
If Tennessee had managed to beat their rivals or at least have a strong showing in the conference regular season, you could have even rosier opinions of the team. Instead, they went 1-3 against their biggest basketball rivals and hit a rough patch at the end of the season. Which involved losing a gut punch to in-state foe Vanderbilt. Bleh.
The next few seasons
I’ve defended Barnes for a while. I think that Tennessee’s basketball history is not nearly as impressive as some believe, and Barnes‘ ability to raise the floor is appreciated. He consistently gets to the postseason, beats rivals (except this year, oddly enough), and competes for conference championships. That should not be dismissed.
I’m starting to wonder how much longer Barnes will be the head coach. That is not me alleging that the administration is putting pressure on him. I have no information on that either way, although I assume they are happy with the job Barnes does.
I just look at how Tennessee’s roster is constructed, and how Barnes builds his teams. With the way it’s looking now, I think we are about to head into another rebuilding stretch. One of those where it takes the Volunteers two to three more seasons to expect a deep tournament run. Barnes will be 69 years old at the start of next season. Is he willing to commit to coaching for another four years?
Here’s the deal. If even half of the seniors return to the team next year, Tennessee might replicate this past season’s performance. Here’s a list of the upperclassmen who have another season left, should they choose to exercise it.
PG Santiago Vescovi
F Josiah-Jordan James
F Olivier Nkamhoua
C Uros Plavsic
All of them were key performers for the team this season. Between the four of them, you had over 100 combined starts last year alone.
We got our first answer on Thursday, when Nkamhoua announced he would be entering the transfer portal as a grad transfer. This was fairly shocking, as most expected him to try and play professional ball. Nkamhoua choosing to play his final season elsewhere is a brutal twist. He could’ve come back and been a primary option.
That leaves three more decisions to be made.
What happens with the rest of these guys will dictate a lot about the 2023-2024 season. The most “replaceable” of the group is probably Uros Plavsic, but experienced big men are hard to come by in college basketball. If two or three more leave for professional opportunities elsewhere...you’re looking at Zakai Zeigler and the question marks. These decisions will probably be the difference between a good team and a team that’s .500 on the year. It’s really not even a recruiting criticism—that’s just a ton of experience and talent to lose all at once.
Oh, and there’s also a strong possibility that freshman Julian Phillips decides to head out as well. Yes, Phillips did not have the season everyone had hoped for. But he could come back and practically be guaranteed a starting spot.
So who is coming in? Unfortunately, no one ready to play immediately. Even though the Volunteers grabbed two top-100 recruits in center JP Estrella and guard Cameron Carr, neither have the indicators of early contributors.
I also have to mention this, simply because it has played a bigger role than some realize: Tennessee’s transfers have not been good. For quite some time now.
Seriously, go back and look at who Tennessee has brought in during the Barnes years. From most recent to oldest, here are the names.
G Tyreke Key
G Justin Powell
F EJ Anosike
G Victor Bailey
C Uros Plavsic
Yeah. Exactly one decent player on that list. The rest have been disappointing or downright bad. Key’s play this year was shocking, but it really wasn’t out of line with how transfers perform at Tennessee.
Ultimately Tennessee doesn’t take enough transfers for it to really matter, but the scouting of these players would seem to be lacking. It’s not like most of these guys were average while in Knoxville—most didn’t look like they belonged at all. That’s a waste of a roster spot.
What happens next?
Right now, we simply have to wait for the decisions. I think of the four other players I mentioned above, it would be too optimistic to assume more than two return. Some guys would just prefer to start their professional career and get what they can out of the sport while their body still functions.
Regardless of how many choose to return, I think it’s pretty obvious that there is currently a ceiling on Tennessee basketball. We can hope for the best and hope that they defy expectations, but we have a large enough sample size to know where this team typically gravitates towards. As long as Barnes is at the head of the program, Tennessee will maintain a very respectable team and occasionally line up for some quality tournament performances.
But if you’re looking for that next step, I’m not sure you’re going to find it anytime soon. Call it apathy, call it realism, but I just don’t see Tennessee making any deeper of a run next season. Or even the season after that. I do think that in the next five years, we will be discussing who should replace Barnes as head coach.
Barnes has earned the right to go out on his own terms and leave in good graces. Whether that is in two years or five, I couldn’t tell you. For now, just approach Tennessee basketball with the understanding that you know what you’re getting.