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Vols Still Viewed as Tournament Contenders Despite Major Losses

(Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

Tennessee’s men’s basketball team tied a program record for the most wins in a season, got back to the SEC Tournament Finals, and were only a few minutes away from advancing to only the second Elite Eight in school history this past year. But this offseason hasn’t been kind to the Vols coming off one of their most successful seasons on the court.

Not only did Tennessee lose starters Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander to graduation, but two-time SEC Player of the Year and consensus First-Team All-American Grant Williams and All-SEC point guard Jordan Bone elected to forgo their senior seasons to enter the 2019 NBA Draft. Sophomore forward Derrick Walker also left the team, transferring to Nebraska.

After all the dust settled, the Vols lost roughly two-thirds of their production off the record-setting 2018-19 squad. The Vols return Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden, but no other returning player on UT’s roster played more than 12 minutes per game last season.

Despite all those significant losses, Tennessee is still viewed as a contender when it comes to postseason play for the 2019-20 season.

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In multiple outlets, the Vols have either come in just inside the early preseason top 25 or right outside of it. Either way, Tennessee is still being looked at as a team that should make it to the NCAA Tournament and continue their winning ways even after losing the bulk of their scoring, rebounding, and assists from last season.

Now that the deadline has come and gone for underclassmen to withdraw their names for consideration for the 2019 NBA Draft, rosters around the country are much more settled now. There are still moves to be made by transfers, and there can still be some late additions in the 2019 recruiting cycle. But college basketball rosters are more or less figured out now. That’s led to many outlets releasing their very early top 25 for the 2019-20 season, and Tennessee has appeared in many of them.

In SB Nation’s preseason top 25, the Vols are still looked at as a high-level contender, coming in at No. 15 on their list.

“Few teams were hit harder by the stay or go decisions of the last two months than Tennessee,” writes SB Nation’s Mike Rutherford. “The Vols lose their top three scorers from last year’s 31-win team, but Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden are back to form what should be one of the best backcourts in the country.”

Over on NBC Sports, Tennessee comes in at No. 21 in their way-too-early preseason top 25, ranking just behind Auburn (20th) and Memphis (19th). Rob Dauster of NBC Sports projects the Vols’ starting five to be Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Josiah Jordan-James, Yves Pons, and John Fulkerson.

In Andy Katz’ “Power 36” on, Tennessee comes in at No. 32 on his preseason list. Katz’ list of 36 teams is a “projection of teams that have the goods to be in the (NCAA Tournament) field in 2020.” So, according to Katz, the Vols still have what it takes to get back to the NCAA Tournament despite their significant losses off the roster.

“The Vols now have a culture where winning is running through the veins,” Katz writes. “The Vols lost a lot of talent with the departures of Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone. So there is hesitation here but Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, John Fulkerson and Yves Pons could be ready to bust out and create their own path to the tournament.”

Katz has four SEC teams in his top 36 (Kentucky, Florida, Auburn, Tennessee) and also includes LSU and South Carolina in his list of “in the mix” teams for the Power 36.

According to Seth Davis of The Athletic, the Vols are just outside the top 25 in his preseason rankings, coming in at No. 32. But Tennessee is in some good company at that spot, coming in slightly behind Michigan (26th), Houston (29th), and Mississippi State (31st). The Vols are ahead of Wisconsin (33rd), Minnesota (37th), and Texas (39th) among others.

Tennessee may be losing a large chunk of their production from last season, but the Vols do return two starter-caliber players and some solid role players who look ready to take the next step.

Lamonte Turner, who won the co-SEC Sixth Man of the Year as a redshirt sophomore, and Jordan Bowden will be the headliners for Tennessee in 2019-20, and John Fulkerson, Yves Pons, Jalen Johnson, DJ Burns, and Zach Kent will all be asked to step up and either start or play significant roles.

That’s not all, though.

The Vols made a ton of additions this offseason to fill all the voids left behind by the departing players. Tennessee signed four players in their 2019 class, adding five-star guard Josiah Jordan-James, four-star forward Olivier Robinson-Nkamhoua, three-star forward Drew Pember, and three-star small forward Davonte Gaines. The Vols also added two transfers to their roster, picking up seven-foot center Uros Plavsic from Arizona State and former four-star guard Victor Bailey Jr. from Oregon. It’s believed that Plavsic will be able to get a waiver to play for UT in the upcoming 2019-20 season, but Bailey is more likely to have to sit and redshirt.

There will be a lot of new faces on the court when Tennessee plays this next season, but the national media has taken notice of what Rick Barnes and his staff have built the last couple years in Knoxville.

The same media that picked UT to finish 13th in the SEC almost two years ago now believes the Vols are here to stay in the national spotlight.

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