When a basketball team finishes the season 15-19, that’s generally a cause for concern. But in the case of the 2015-16 Tennessee basketball team, the future actually feels more secure than it has in years.
The Vols finished the regular season with a 13-18 record and played the last five games of the season without Kevin Punter, the team’s leading scorer and SEC Player of the Year candidate at the time before his injury. New head coach Rick Barnes’ first season with the Vols looked like it would be one fans and the coach himself would like to forget.
Then the SEC Tournament happened, and an otherwise forgettable season became a bit more memorable.
The Vols were the second-worst team in the tournament, but they walloped Auburn 97-59 to make it out of the play-in first round. But Vanderbilt awaited them, a team the Vols had lost to twice already and matched up with very poorly on paper.
But thanks to late game magic going Tennessee’s way for once, the Vols were able to pull off a major upset.
Detrick Mostella missed a free throw with less than 10 seconds remaining, and the Commodores rebounded it. Vanderbilt’s Wade Baldwin IV raced down the court and floated in a shot as time expired to send the game into overtime.
But on further review, the ball was still in contact with Baldwin’s hand as the game clock expired, which meant the Vols eked out the upset.
Vol fans and players were ecstatic after the win, and even though Tennessee fell to LSU 84-75 in the SEC quarterfinals the next day, the win over Vanderbilt was still more than Vol fans expected out of a thin and undersized roster. Tennessee got a brief taste of March Madness, and it was enough to provide excitement in an otherwise lost season.
Sure, the Vols beat Kentucky and Florida during the regular season. Wins like that will always stand out in a season for Tennessee basketball. But a putrid record away from home and fading down the stretch drained the energy out of the fan base. A win over an in-state rival in the SEC Tournament is just what this fan base needed.
And it helped put some confidence in Tennessee’s head basketball coach as well.
When Rick Barnes was hired by Tennessee to become the next head basketball coach, most fans viewed the hire as a lucky one considering the timing and Tennessee’s circumstances. Most were happy to have Barnes aboard and figured he would provide some much-needed stability to a sinking program. But there were naysayers who thought Barnes was past his prime and wouldn’t be able to get the Vols above just an average team for however long he stayed.
But Tennessee’s brief SEC Tournament run should provide hope that Barnes can, in fact, win with the Vols. And the quick recruiting he’s managed to do while at the helm should only provide further confidence.
Barnes took a team that was without its leading scorer, who contributed an average of 22 points a game, and beat Auburn by 38 points and then defeated a very talented Vanderbilt team that was the worst match-up for the Vols on paper of any team they faced all season. He helped lead the Vols to victories over Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina (who was actually good this year), all in the same season as well.
Nothing Barnes did was truly miraculous or reminiscent of anything the mid-2000’s era Vols did. But he showed in those victories and in other instances that he can win with a patchwork roster that consistently didn’t play anyone over 6-foot-7 for long periods of games or have a true point guard on the active roster.
But next year’s roster should make up for that thanks to the young pieces on the roster and the recruiting job Barnes has already done.
The Vols will finally have point guard Lamonte Turner qualified and active on the roster next season, and the former four-star recruit will be the first true point guard the Vols have had since Cuonzo Martin’s last year as head coach. Forward Kyle Alexander, the tallest player on the team at 6-foot-9, will be a sophomore and have more weight on his frame and a year of college experience to draw on. And that’s not to mention the talents of rising sophomores Admiral Schofield and Shembari Phillips, who were pressed into extended action this season.
But the true excitement comes in the newcomers in the 2016 signing class. PG Kwe Parker and F Jalen Johnson all both top 200 players in the nation according to 247Sports, and PG Jordan Bone and PF John Fulkerson are top 250 players with great upside that fill needs. F Grant Williams comes in at No. 251 in the 247Sports rankings, and he, like the other four signees, is very athletic and has a higher ceiling than their star rating would indicate.
What Barnes was able to do with a thin and small (literally) roster in his first year was nothing short of admirable. The Vols could’ve suffered through a Wade Houston-like season, winning a mere 9 of 10 games this year. The Vols’ season wasn’t good or even average, but it could’ve (and possibly should’ve) been much worse than what it was. And the ending has left fans optimistic for the days ahead.
Take that and couple it with the talent Barnes has coming in, and it’s easy to believe that the Vols finally have their basketball program in safe hands for the first time in many, many years.