Tennessee begins the 2019-20 men’s basketball season on Tuesday night when they play host to UNC Asheville. The Vols start their fifth season under head coach Rick Barnes with a vastly different roster than last season, and expectations are a bit of a haze for this year’s team.
With the news that the NCAA denied Arizona State transfer Uros Plavsic’s immediate eligibility waiver for this season, Tennessee’s approach to the season changes. The Vols won’t have a seven-footer in the post they can rely on for versatile offensive play and solid defense; instead, UT may have to implement more guard-heavy lineups than originally anticipated.
With that in mind, the RTI team gives their best guesses of how Tennessee’s 2019-20 season will unfold.
Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and RTI contributor Robert Hughes share their overall record predictions, SEC record prediction, NCAA Tournament outlook, and MVP for the Vols’ 2019-20 men’s basketball team.
Here are our season predictions.
SEC Record Prediction
The SEC continues to get better and deeper, and this year, the Vols aren’t going to be one of the top dogs in the conference.
While I think Tennessee is plenty capable of surprising people this season, the loss of Uros Plavsic for the season due to the NCAA’s decision to deny his immediate eligibility waiver really hurts. I think the Vols can find success with some small ball lineups, but unfortunately for UT, their schedule is littered with teams with some really good post players.
In the SEC specifically, I think Tennessee starts the season off with a loss to LSU. I see UT rebounding with wins over Missouri and South Carolina, but I think Georgia beats them down in Athens. Tennessee has struggled with the Bulldogs historically, and five-star Anthony Edwards could be a problem.
After that, I actually think Vanderbilt gets the best of Tennessee in Nashville. The Commodores are going to be better this season, and they almost beat the Vols in their arena last year. Vandy gives UT fits in Nashville, and I think the Vols lose back-to-back games here.
Tennessee will beat Ole Miss before taking on Kansas, and once SEC play resumes, I think the Vols rattle off several wins. I have UT winning their next two SEC games against Texas A&M and Mississippi State before losing on the road to Alabama, but after that, I see the Vols defeating Kentucky at home (because Rick Barnes owns the Wildcats in Knoxville). That win will spark the Vols to a five-game winning streak with their other victories coming over Arkansas, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and a surprise road victory over Auburn.
I think UT loses on the road to Arkansas after that, however. They then lose at home against Florida and lose on the road to Kentucky. Auburn will get revenge and defeat Tennessee in Knoxville to end the regular season.
It wouldn’t shock me to see the Vols end the regular season on a four or five-game losing streak because their schedule is so back-loaded with tough games. But I think that’ll give this team motivation heading into the SEC Tournament.
Final SEC Record: 10-8
Regular Season Record Prediction
Tennessee will win all their match-ups with mid-major teams this season. I think Murray State could put a scare into the Vols, and that one concerns me a little bit (even without Ja Morant leading the team). It’s the Vols’ match-ups with their high-caliber opponents that really worry me, though.
I think the Vols will still be struggling with chemistry and figuring out what their identity is when they take on Washington in Toronto. Plus, the Huskies have five-star power forward Isaiah Stewart, and he’ll give UT’s interior fits. I think that’s where UT’s first loss of the season happens.
I see Tennessee beating Florida State then defeating either Purdue (in a rematch of last season’s Sweet Sixteen) or beating VCU, depending on which team they face in the Emerald Coast Classic.
Tennessee’s match-up with Memphis will be the most talked about non-conference game of the year for the Vols, and I think Penny Hardaway comes into Knoxville with his fists balled up and ready to fight. I think the Vols will give the Tigers a run for their money, but this time, Memphis is just too talented compared to last season. I think that’s a loss for the Vols.
On the road at Cincinnati, I see UT losing. At home against Wisconsin, I see UT losing. Later in the season when the Vols face-off with Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, I see UT losing.
That brings the Vols’ non-conference record to 8-5, which makes my final regular season prediction for Tennessee…
Final Regular Season Record: 18-13
NCAA Tournament Projection
Tennessee’s regular season will feature some close losses, maybe a few bigger losses, but also some impressive wins. I think the Vols’ overall resume for the NET will make them look good, and I also believe the Vols will win a couple games in the SEC Tournament.
If Tennessee has 19 or 20 wins as a bubble team, I think the respect the selection committee has for Rick Barnes and the Vols’ own resume will get them in. I think UT will sneak in as either an eight, nine, or 10-seed in the 2020 NCAA Tournament.
To me, this is an obvious choice. Senior guard Lamonte Turner will be counted on to be a leader for the Vols this season, and I think he’ll take a big step forward. We saw him last year make some clutch shots and perform really well to end the season, and that was with him banged up.
Right now, Turner is healthy, and he’ll lead the team in scoring and maybe in assists as well. Jordan Bowden will contend for this honor, and John Fulkerson could be a sneaky pick considering how big his role will be. But I’m rolling with Turner.
SEC Record Prediction:
Much to the delight of SEC schools and fans, the Southeastern Conference is no longer looked at solely for its football prowess. With the recent rise of programs like Auburn, LSU, and, of course, Tennessee, the SEC has proven that it is capable of making deep waves in the NCAA Tournament and big splashes on the recruiting trail.
Notable match-ups this season for Tennessee include two games against Auburn and Florida at home, LSU at home, and Kentucky both on the road and home. I think the Vols stumble out of the gate and lose in their first SEC game against the LSU Tigers, but I think they bounce back and cruise for seven wins a row against many of the weaker teams in the conference. A road test against a revitalized Alabama squad under new head coach Nate Oats will end in a close loss, but Tennessee will bounce back with a resounding win against Kentucky at home. No matter the talent on either team, Rick Barnes simply doesn’t lose to the Wildcats in Thompson-Boling Arena.
After another few wins, I think the Volunteers will sputter to the finish line, as the final five games feature two games against Auburn as well as match-ups against Arkansas, Florida, and Kentucky in Rupp Arena. The Vols pick up the win against the Razorbacks, split the series with Auburn, and lose to the Gators and the Wildcats.
Despite the loss of SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and All-SEC performers Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone, the Vols retain a talented squad, albeit a young one. Preseason All-SEC honorees Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden will still lead the Vols to a solid conference record, losing just five games against SEC foes.
Final SEC Record: 13-5
Overall Season Projection:
As has been the case in recent years, Tennessee’s non-conference schedule features formidable competition. This season, the Vols square-off against Washington and have a potential Sweet Sixteen rematch against Purdue in the Emerald Coast Classic. In the Big 12/SEC Challenge, Tennessee faces blue blood Kansas. And, as of last year, the rivalry with in-state rival Memphis has been renewed.
Speaking of, with the signing of the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit James Wiseman — as well as four other top-100 recruits (according to 247Sports) — Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway has quickly built Memphis to a legitimate threat. In what will surely be one of the most electric atmospheres Thompson-Boling has ever seen, Hardaway’s reloaded squad of young stars will win in a knock-down, drag-out fistfight — I mean, basketball game.
Before the in-state contest against the Tigers, however, the young Vols will have to face-off against Washington. Tennessee also loses its match-up against the Huskies in Toronto in the James Naismith Classic. Washington, like Memphis, is a young team with tons of talent. The Volunteers’ inexperience will be exposed early, which will prove beneficial in the long run for the Vols.
In the Emerald Coast Classic, Tennessee wins against Florida State, but loses in the potential rematch with Purdue. Should the Vols face VCU instead, I still see the final game of the tournament as a loss.
Smack in the middle of conference play, Tennessee takes a quick break from SEC competition to face-off against preseason No. 3 Kansas, and the Jayhawks take this one from the Vols in Thompson-Boling Arena. Much like last year’s match-up against Kansas, this one will end in heartbreak.
Overall, though, Tennessee finishes with a strong overall record.
Final regular season record: 22-9
NCAA Tournament Projection:
Tennessee easily makes the NCAA Tournament for the third season in a row. Close loses to elite competition will hurt the Vols’ chances of a high tournament seed, but Tennessee still punches its ticket to the “Big Dance” as an 8-seed.
No surprise here, but Lamonte Turner shines in his final season as a Volunteer. In his new role as the team’s leader and primary scorer, Turner responds with an All-SEC season and leads the Vols in scoring and assists.