Column: Best is Yet to Come for this Vols’ Team

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    Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

    I try not to resort to hyperbole when discussing sports. Far too often, sports media nowadays gets too caught up in the moment and likes to think everything happening right now is either the best or worst it’s ever been. Every big win is a program-defining victory while every bad loss is a death blow to a program.

    I try not to get too caught up in the hype anymore. But I can type these next words without fear of feeling like I’m wearing blinders and forgetting the past: This year’s Tennessee’s men’s basketball team could legitimately be the best men’s basketball team in Tennessee history. And they aren’t even playing their best ball yet.

    The Vols have raced out to an 8-1 record to start this season, their best start through nine games since the 2009-10 also won eight of their first nine games to begin that season. This team boasts a victory over a No. 1 team when they beat the top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs 76-73 a little over a week ago. Their only loss so far came against then-No. 2 Kansas in overtime. The Jayhawks are now the No. 1 team in college basketball.

    Tennessee is also No. 3 in the AP Poll, their highest ranking in the poll since they were briefly No. 1 in 2008 after taking down No. 1 Memphis the weekend before the updated polls came out.

    As a program, the Vols’ men’s team have been ranked inside the top 5 of the AP Poll a combined 21 weeks. Four of those weeks have come this season, counting this week after the updated poll came out today. Tennessee has been ranked no lower than seventh in the AP Poll this season.

    And as impressive as this start has been for the Vols, you could argue that they haven’t been playing anywhere close to what their potential is.

    Through nine games, you’d be hard-pressed to find more than two games in which the Vols have played a strong 40 minutes of basketball. Their wins against Louisiana and Eastern Kentucky are the only games that come to mind, but those are the only two games that really could qualify as Tennessee playing a complete 40-minute game.

    Otherwise, Tennessee has gotten by with some inconsistent play and has still beaten almost every team they’ve faced.

    The Vols’ defense wasn’t particularly sharp against Louisville, and their free throw shooting was terrible in that game (64 percent). Yet Tennessee still won that game by 11 points. Tennessee played erratically and not very fundamentally sound against No. 2 Kansas, and it still took a loaded Jayhawks team an extra period (and Grant Williams fouling out) to down the Vols.

    Against Gonzaga, the Vols didn’t shoot the ball well as a team and got out-rebounded. But their defense stepped up in a big way, and Admiral Schofield carried the team in the second half with his career-best performance.

    On Saturday against Memphis, Tennessee once again didn’t play their best. They turned the ball over a season-high 18 times and let the Tigers score 92 points. But the Vols were dialed in on offense and got aggressive in the paint, drawing plenty of fouls and getting to the free throw line 46 times. And unlike against Louisville, UT made their shots from the charity stripe, nailing 39 of their 46 free throw attempts.

    Not only has Tennessee been able to get quality wins even when not playing all that effectively, they’ve also been able to get most of their wins without reigning co-SEC Sixth Man of the Year Lamonte Turner.

    Turner, who was second on the team in scoring and third in minutes played last season, has only appeared in three games this year and hasn’t looked like himself because of a lingering shoulder issue. The junior guard had offseason shoulder surgery, but it’s still been bothering him as the season has unfolded. He’s shot just 26.5 percent overall in his three appearances, and that includes just 20 percent from three.

    Last year, Turner made 39.9 percent of his shots and hit 39.5 percent of his threes.

    In his absence, junior guard Jordan Bowden and sophomore forward Yves Pons have stepped up and provided a spark on offense and defense. Admiral Schofield has caught fire recently as well, totaling 59 combined points in the Vols’ last two games. Before that, though, Schofield had been struggling to be a consistent second/first option on offense for the Vols.

    Can you imagine what this team would play like if Turner can return and remain healthy and both Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield can feed off each other both offensively and defensively? Not only that, but imagine if Kyle Alexander, Jordan Bowden, and Yves Pons continue to develop as the season goes on and build off the strong starts they’ve already shown. And that all doesn’t even take into account the way point guard Jordan Bone is playing right now. He’s currently averaging career-highs in field goal percentage, points per game, assists per game, and rebounds per game.

    Granted, the Vols haven’t been tested as often to start this season like they will consistently once they get into SEC play. But they’ve faced high quality opponents often enough to get a feel for how they are as a team right now, and they’ve managed to get off to one of the best starts in school history even while not playing their best.

    Assuming this roster doesn’t suffer any major or long-lasting injuries and Lamonte Turner can get back on the court, Tennessee’s best basketball is still ahead of them. And that has to scare every team that’s on their schedule for the remainder of this season.

    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.