Another day has passed, so that means another national sports writer has listed the Tennessee basketball team in their offseason top 10. This time, Andy Katz of NCAA.com ranked the Vols No. 4 in his preseason “Power 36.” He cites the team’s experience and talent, reasoning that they could make a deep postseason run.
These lofty expectations aren’t an outlier either. Nearly every national sports media service sees the Vols as one of the best teams in the country. These high expectations may be uncomfortable, especially given the team’s underdog status just a year ago, as well as the general dysfunction of Tennessee athletics this decade.
These expectations, however, are justified. As fans, it is perfectly okay to feel optimistic about this team. They are really good. And this team is everything its made out to be.
Last year the Vols were a three-seed in the NCAA tournament and SEC co-champions for the regular season, and all signs point to them being even better this year. They only lost two players, and their two biggest weaknesses from a year ago are likely to improve this year.
Rick Barnes and crew only lost guards James Daniels III and Chris Darrington off last year’s team. Daniels was a great role player and energy guy, but he’s replaceable. Darrington never really found a role on the team and ultimately transferred. Neither of them are devastating losses.
Tennessee’s two biggest weaknesses from a year ago was a lack of big man depth and inconsistency from the guards. This held them back from reaching an elite level, but both of those are likely to be corrected this season.
In 2017, the Vols lacked depth in the paint. Kyle Alexander did the brunt of the work, with John Fulkerson and Derrick Walker rotating in. Too often, they couldn’t rely on the non-starters and had to go with a small lineup when Alexander was on the bench. When Alexander went down in the NCAA Tournament and couldn’t play against Loyola, the Vols struggled and ultimately lost. That situation will be much improved next year.
Kyle Alexander has gotten exponentially better every year he’s been at Tennessee, and there is no reason to believe he won’t continue on that trajectory. John Fulkerson played excellent basketball as a freshman before a severe elbow injury. He never seemed to get comfortable last season, and while he showed flashes of his freshman self, he played poorly at times. Another offseason removed from injury could be very beneficial for him. Derrick Walker should also have a bigger role this season as he really began to come along towards the end of the year.
With all three of those players progressing, the Vols’ front court will already be in much better shape. But then the Vols went out and made a huge move on the recruiting trail last week.
The biggest addition to this year’s team is four-star center D.J. Burns. On Friday of last week, Burns committed to the Vols in the 2018 class and will be eligible to play immediately this season. He’s the total package at center and should contribute right away as long as he improves his conditioning. He will be very beneficial to the Vols as someone that can create his own offense in the post. Not only that, but he’s skilled with the ball in his hands and is a good passer as well.
Generating more offense from the center position can really help the offense reach a new level this season. It can draw attention away from guys like Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams and free up more (and better) outside shots for the guards too.
The Vols also saw their offense stall at times last year because the guard play was inconsistent. Jordan Bowden and Jordan Bone were good most of the time, but some games they just didn’t have it. Lamonte Turner was the closest thing the Vols had at guard as someone that could take control and beat guys off the bounce, but he was still more of a spot up shooter. Bone showed he had the ability to be that guy, but he never really played all that assertive. When he decided to play aggressive, good things usually happened, such as his game against Arkansas in the SEC tournament where he scored 17 points in the first half in a blowout victory.
As Bone enters his junior year, if he can take a more aggressive mindset, he can make the entire offense better and help shore up Tennessee’s guard play.
Then there’s Yves Pons and Jalen Johnson, the two highest-rated recruits on the roster aside from Burns. Pons and Johnson hardly played last season. They have both reportedly had great starts to the offseason, and they will likely have bigger roles next year. If they can play up to their recruiting ranking, the sky’s the limit for this year’s squad.
So yes, all this preseason hype can be nerve-racking for a fan base that isn’t used to seeing results pan out from hype, but breathe easy. This is a great basketball team worthy of the hype.
With a coach like Rick Barnes, it’s hard to imagine these expectations will get to the team’s head. Tennessee has rightfully earned this preseason respect and absolutely should be one of the nation’s best teams next year.