Heading into the 2018-19 college basketball season, Tennessee’s men’s basketball team was touted as a top 10 team largely because of all their returning experience and chemistry. The Vols returned all five of their starters from the previous season — a year where UT went 26-9 overall and won a share of the SEC regular season title — and they returned co-SEC Sixth Man of the Year Lamonte Turner. Tennessee had a great deal of experience and returning production this season.
This offseason, however, will see a complete 180-degree shift in the narrative around Tennessee’s men’s hoops program.
The Vols are going to look almost completely different for the upcoming 2019-20 season than they did this past season. Tennessee is losing four starters and a bench player, and those four starters in particular were critical pieces in UT’s successes the last two years.
Gone are seniors Kyle Alexander and Admiral Schofield. Both players graduated this year after spending four seasons in Knoxville. But they aren’t the only players who won’t be returning for Tennessee next season.
Two-time SEC Player of the Year and consensus First-Team All-American Grant Williams and Second-Team All-SEC point guard Jordan Bone both have elected to forgo their senior seasons and will pursue careers in the NBA. That leaves rising senior Lamonte Turner as the only returning starter from last season’s squad, though key contributor and part-time starter Jordan Bowden also returns.
But the losses that Tennessee is experiencing this offseason are numerous.
Along with Alexander, Schofield, Williams, and Bone, reserve forward Derrick Walker also announced a transfer to Nebraska this offseason. Walker didn’t make near the amount of contributions in his two years at UT as the other four Vols who are leaving the roster, but he’s another big that won’t be returning to a now highly-questionable frontcourt.
Tennessee lost three of their four major post players from this past season, their starting point guard, and the emotional leader of their team. With all those losses comes a ton of production on both ends of the court that won’t be on the roster next season.
Across the board, Tennessee is losing about two-thirds of their overall production from last season. The five departing players made up 69.3 percent of Tennessee’s points, 65.5 percent of UT’s assists, 64.9 percent of UT’s rebounds, and 61.3 percent of Tennessee’s minutes played. The five departing players also accounted for 71.9 percent of the total blocks UT had last season, and they were responsible for 71.9 percent of Tennessee’s attempted free throws. They also had 56.1 percent of Tennessee’s total steals on defense.
That kind of attrition is rarely seen at Tennessee in men’s basketball. In fact, the last time UT lost that amount of production from one season to the next, they saw a huge drop-off in quality of play the next year.
After the 2013-14 season, Tennessee lost Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon, Antonio Barton, and Darius Thompson in the offseason. Josh Richardson, Robert Hubbs III, and Armani Moore were the three Vols with the most experience returning to the 2014-15 squad, but those three weren’t the major contributors on the 2013-14 team.
With the departures of Stokes, McRae, Maymon, Barton, and Thompson, Tennessee lost 74.2 percent of their scoring, 78 percent of their assists, 68.4 percent of their rebounding, and 66.9 percent of their minutes played. They also lost 80.4 percent of their attempted free throws, 69.8 percent of their steals, and 57.6 percent of their blocks.
That massive amount of change was a big reason why Tennessee went from a 24-13 record and a Sweet Sixteen appearance in the 2013-14 season to a 16-16 mark in the 2014-15 season.
Of course, Tennessee also had a coaching change that offseason, and Donnie Tyndall brought a completely different style of play than Cuonzo Martin. This upcoming Tennessee squad won’t have that to worry about that change, but they still lose a comparable amount of experience and production as that 2014-15 team.
The Vols still return two of their more productive players in Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden, and John Fulkerson proved to be a quality backup at the power forward spot last year. But aside from those three, there are a ton of questions about UT’s roster, and even those three have their own sets of question marks.
Yves Pons started 13 games and played in 35 of UT’s 37 games, but his playing time decreased dramatically after the calendar turned to February. Jalen Johnson has flashed some potential, but he’s yet to show he can be a consistent producer.
Other than those two and the other three mentioned above, Tennessee doesn’t have a returning player who has played any significant minutes in college basketball.
Zach Kent has appeared in two games in his UT career, and he only played a combined 13 minutes in those contests against Presbyterian and High Point in 2017. He didn’t play at all last season. Neither did DJ Burns, the four-star forward who signed with the Vols in their 2018 class.
Tennessee also welcomes in four new signees in their 2019 class and Arizona State transfer Uros Plavsic. Assuming Plavsic can play immediately this upcoming season, which head coach Rick Barnes feels confident will happen, then UT will at least have another big man on the court. But the seven-foot Serbian didn’t play at all for Arizona State this past season, using his first year on campus as a redshirt year.
The Vols return just five players who played on the court from last year’s team. And two of those players — Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden — make up the vast majority of the production among the five players.
Tennessee is going to look drastically different next season, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be bad. They do return Turner and Bowden, and they’ll have a former four-star in DJ Burns on the court. Tennessee also welcomes in five-star guard Josiah James and four-star forward Olivier Robinson-Nkamhoua to go along with Plavsic.
In fact, Grant Williams isn’t all that worried about all the change.
Williams sat down with Andy Katz of NCAA.com on his March Madness 365 podcast this week, and he was asked about how different Tennessee would look this upcoming season. While Williams says he “definitely” sees a different version of the Vols playing this next year, he think UT will still surprise people.
“I definitely see a different version. I definitely see a more guard-oriented but talented team,” Williams said. “Guys might be sleeping on them, not believe that this team is talented enough to do what they did and compete at the high level that we did before. But the guys on that roster — guys like Lamonte Turner, he’s a veteran, he’s going to lead those guys better than anyone; same with Jordan Bowden. Jalen Johnson will have a breakout year — then they brought in some size, they brought in some bangers. They brought in Uros (Plavsic), they brought in Olivier (Robinson-Nkamhoua).
“They have a lot of guys that can really contribute. Zach Kent, a guy who is going harder than anyone in the gym these last couple months. Tennessee is no one to be slept on. They’re going to be a skilled team. They probably won’t be as athletic and physical as they used to be with myself and Admiral, Kyle, and Derrick and those guys that had size. But I feel like they have more basketball knowledge as a team. They’ll play to their strengths, they’ll understand the game better. And I think Coach (Barnes) will do a great job leading them. They have great developers in Kim English and Coach (Mike) Schwartz. So I’m excited for them. Excited to cheer them on and give them my support.”
One thing is for certain: Tennessee won’t look anything like they have the past couple years when they take the court this season. But only time will tell if UT can still find enough success to get back to the NCAA Tournament for a third-straight year.
Grant Williams is confident in UT’s ability to perform without him and the other departing players. Vol fans hope next year’s squad will prove him right.