The hype around Tennessee’s men’s basketball team has arguably never been higher in school history. After winning a share of the SEC regular season title and earning a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament last season, the Vols are expected to do that and more this upcoming season because they return every starter and most of their bench production from last year’s squad. One national analyst has already picked the Vols as one of his Final Four teams, and many early preseason polls have the Vols ranked inside the top five.
Now another national analyst is speaking highly of the Vols, and he’s the most recognizable voice in the sport.
ESPN’s Dick Vitale posted his preseason top 40 teams prior to the start of the 2018-19 season, and he included a lot of SEC teams in his rankings. And Vitale has the Vols not only as one of the top teams in the SEC, but as one of the top teams in all of college basketball this upcoming season.
Vitale includes the Vols in his top three teams this preseason, putting them right at No. 3 on his list. SEC foe Kentucky is one spot ahead of Tennessee at No. 2, and Vitale puts Kansas as his No. 1 team heading into the 2018-19 season.
Other SEC schools in Vitale’s top 40 include Mississippi State (14th), Auburn (15th), Florida (24th), LSU (26th), and Vanderbilt (32nd).
The long-time college basketball analyst cites Tennessee’s returning experience as the main reason he’s buying into the Vols, but he does include one caveat to watch out for this season.
“Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield lead an experienced returning corps,” Vitale writes. “Rick Barnes’ club goes from the hunter to the hunted.”
As Vitale states, one of the big storylines surrounding the Vols this year will be how they transition from being the team nobody picked to succeed this time last year to the team with a giant target on their back. Tennessee was picked to finish 13th out of 14 SEC teams by the SEC media last year, but they’ll likely be picked by many to win the SEC regular season title this year. The Vols will go from a lovable underdog to a targeted favorite this season.
Tennessee’s players may not be used to that kind of spotlight or pressure, but Rick Barnes knows what it’s like to coach with a target on his team’s back. While at Texas, Barnes led the Longhorns to at least a share of the regular season conference title three times and finished second in the conference standings five other times. He’s used to having expectations on him and coaching teams who are the favorites.
The Vols will open up their 2018-19 season on November 6th when they host Barnes’ alma mater, Lenoir-Rhyne. Tennessee will play an exhibition game against Tusculum on October 31st in Knoxville as well.