To say Tennessee’s 2019-20 men’s basketball season hasn’t gone to plan would be a major understatement.
It’s one thing to lose a couple players early to the NBA like Tennessee did with Grant Williams and Jordan Bone. Though Williams wasn’t exactly a big surprise, Bone leaving after his junior year was far from a certainty until late in the 2018-19 campaign. By the time it became evident, replacing him with a high school prospect wasn’t going to be easy, and UT pursued several grad transfer options only for those not to pan out.
But that hasn’t been the only thing that hasn’t gone the Vols’ way since the end of last season.
Four-star power forward DJ Burns elected to transfer out of the program after just one year on campus. Burns’ transfer wasn’t due to a clash of personalities between himself and his teammates or coaches; rather, it was due to off-court issues that he didn’t take care of. Now, he’s at Winthrop. Both forward Derrick Walker and forward Zach Kent also transferred off the roster, with Walker going to Nebraska in the offseason and Kent leaving for Delaware State less than a month into the season.
As if those departures weren’t enough, Tennessee has also been majorly unlucky with injuries this year. That, and UT has welcomed in two new players in the middle of the season, forcing Tennessee’s coaches and players to adjust on the fly to new roles.
Yet despite all that, Tennessee’s 2019-20 season hasn’t been a disaster. It hasn’t gone how fans, coaches, and players would’ve liked, but given all the attrition and adversity, Tennessee sitting at 14-11 overall and still with chances of making a postseason berth in at least the NIT is somewhat surprising.
Head coach Rick Barnes acknowledges that, and he’s proud of the way his team hasn’t given up despite some tough losses both on and off the court.
“If you would have told me when the season started that Lamonte Turner wasn’t going to be here and Jordan Bowden was going to have his worst shooting year ever and for us to even be where we are? We have two guys on the roster who weren’t even on our opening day roster,” Barnes said on Monday. “If you think about when the season started, we were expecting Lamonte, Jordan Bowden, and Josiah-Jordan James to play a lot. One of those guys is no longer with us, one is having as a tough a year as he has ever had, and the other has basically been hurt from the start. For us to even be where we are after those things, I’m really proud of these guys.
“And the fact that we had a guy that had three days of practice and has done a tremendous job (Santiago Vescovi), and Uros (Plavsic) sat out much of the year. I think a lot of teams go through these things, and I don’t think anybody feels sorry for them. I can only tell you what we have gone through. Right after Christmas, we were a team that looked like a shell of what we were when we started. Without Santiago (Vescovi), I don’t know where we would be right now. But to be able to continue to fight back and still be in the thick of it is a real compliment to these guys, I think it really is.”
Entering the season, Tennessee had just two scholarship seniors on the roster. Just 11 games into the year, one of those seniors, Lamonte Turner, elected to shut down his season and end his UT career to have surgery on a shoulder that had been ailing him for years. Turner started all 11 games to begin the season and had been a huge contributor both as a starter and sixth man the last two seasons. He was averaging 12.3 points, 7.1 assists, and 3.5 rebounds at the time of his decision to have surgery.
Since then, the Vols’ other senior, Jordan Bowden, has struggled as UT’s primary perimeter scorer.
In Tennessee’s first 11 games, Bowden was averaging 13.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.4 assists while shooting 40.8 percent overall and 37.3 percent from three. In the 14 games since Turner shut it down, Bowden is averaging 12.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.5 assists but is only shooting 33.5 percent from the floor and just 17.5 percent from three.
Five-star guard Josiah-Jordan James dealt with a hip/groin injury in the preseason and essentially missed all of UT’s fall practices before the season, and that injury got re-aggravated against Kansas this season. James missed four games before retaking the court on Saturday against South Carolina. Now, starting forward Yves Pons is dealing with tendinitis in his knee.
Vescovi, who joined the Vols in late December from Uruguay and practiced with the team for a week before making his debut in January against LSU, has started all 13 games he’s played and is currently the Vols’ fourth-leading scorer. Seven-footer Uros Plavsic wasn’t cleared to play by the NCAA until mid-January despite applying for immediate eligibility before the season even began.
Last season, Tennessee had no contributions from a freshman on the roster, and only a handful of stats were collected by sophomores and second-year players. This season, two of UT’s starters are freshmen, and all of Tennessee’s bench players except for junior Jalen Johnson are freshmen.
But at this point in the season, even for the mid-year additions like Vescovi and Plavsic, youth isn’t an excuse according to Barnes.
“We’re not talking to them about being young, because I think these guys have played enough minutes right now that we’re in it,” Barnes explained. “Our whole year has been inconsistent, and for these guys to continue to fight and to have given everything they’ve got, I would not trade them for anybody because I know they are trying. I know we are going to get so much better as time goes on.”
After a 7-1 start to the season, Tennessee has gone just 7-10 over the last couple months. The Vols have played better over the last four or five games than they were in January and at the end of December, but Saturday’s 63-61 road loss to South Carolina was another blow. Tennessee was barely hanging on to a chance to make it to the NCAA Tournament before the game, but the loss likely has ended UT’s hopes of making it to the Big Dance unless the Vols can pull off some upsets to close out the regular season and go on a run in the SEC Tournament.
Barring that, a bid in the NIT seems likely. Even that isn’t guaranteed, though, as the Vols still need to finish above .500 to make that happen. With two games against Auburn, a road contest against Kentucky, a road game against Arkansas, and a match-up with Florida still on the schedule, finishing with a winning record isn’t assured.
Against South Carolina, old issues reared their head for the Vols. Tennessee committed 20 turnovers after averaging just 9.5 turnovers a game in their previous four contests, and mental mistakes were made on both ends of the court. Not only that, but UT also made just 60.7 percent of their free throws, their fourth-worst percentage in a game this season.
“We were all disappointed in losing the game Saturday, because we controlled it for the most part,” Barnes said. “It really it got away from us at the seven-minute mark, because we felt like they were reeling at that point, and then we had some missed free throws, they go down, and we let them have a straight-line drive. We hadn’t let them do that all game long.
“We go back and look at all the things we said we have to do to beat these guys, and we did them all and then the last couple minutes we gave up a couple things that we can’t. But you have to give them credit. Lawson made a tough runner on the baseline, and then hit a wide open three where we overhelped, and that’s how quickly it can change. But does frustration come in sometimes with where we are? It does, but the bottom line is we have to find a way to finish it, and we had it, but we didn’t finish it. So we have to let it go and get ready for tomorrow and then Saturday and on from there.”
Tennessee has one more “easy” game left on their schedule, and that’s on Tuesday at home against Vanderbilt. The Commodores are just 9-16 overall and 1-11 in SEC play, and the Vols handled the Commodores in Nashville a month ago, winning 66-45. But Vanderbilt has played slightly better lately, and nothing is guaranteed in rivalry games.
After Tuesday, things get much harder to close out the season for the Vols. But Rick Barnes knows his team won’t give up, and he has faith their best basketball is still ahead of them.