This time last year, Tennessee’s men’s basketball program was gearing up for their second round match-up with Iowa in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. This year, Tennessee and the rest of the college basketball world are sitting at home amidst all the cancellations due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but even if the season had continued on as planned, the Vols would likely not have been in the Big Dance this year.
Tennessee took a noticeable step back this season compared to last year after losing four of their five starters from the 2018-19 season then losing that fifth starter in December to season-ending surgery. Due to all that attrition and the influx of several young newcomers, the Vols went from 31-6 and an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen last year to 17-14 overall this season.
While the Vols’ decline in play wasn’t out of the ordinary in college basketball, hopes were still high for UT’s men’s team at the beginning of this season. Tennessee began the year just outside the top 25 in most polls, and they managed to sneak into the polls after a solid start. The Vols climbed as high as No. 17 in the AP Poll early in the season, and Tennessee was ranked for five-straight weeks from November 18th through December 22nd.
But once Tennessee fell out of the top 25, they never got back in, and UT went from a 7-1 start to closing out the year with a 10-13 finish.
Despite the somewhat lackluster results from this season, there’s plenty of reason for optimism for next year for the Vols as they welcome back the main core of their team from this season and bring in three highly-rated prospects as part of their 2020 signing class. Because of that, early projections already have the Vols as a top-15 team months before the 2020-21 season begins.
CBS Sports already ranked Tennessee as a top-15 team in their very early preseason top 25 for next college basketball season, and Jeff Borzello of ESPN also has much higher expectations for next year’s Vol squad.
According to Borzello’s way-too-early preseason top 25 rankings for the 2020-21 season, the Vols are a top-15 team and come in at No. 14 in his very early rankings.
“The Vols took an expected step back this season after the departure of three starters and season-ending injury to Lamonte Turner. But the 2020-21 campaign looks bright,” Borzello writes. “Veteran stalwart Jordan Bowden is gone, but that’s it. Four starters return, including three double-figure scorers: point guard Santiago Vescovi and forwards Yves Pons and John Fulkerson. Versatile wing Josiah-Jordan James is also back. Rick Barnes also has a loaded group of newcomers entering the program, led by five-star guards Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, as well as ESPN 100 forward Corey Walker and Oregon transfer Victor Bailey Jr. Tennessee is going to be deep, experienced and versatile — and could move up the rankings as teams ahead of the Volunteers lose guys to the NBA draft.”
As Borzello notes, Bowden and Turner are the only major contributors the Vols lose from their 2019-20 roster, and UT already played more than half of the 2019-20 season without Turner anyway. Throw in the transfer of redshirt junior wing Jalen Johnson, and the Vols are losing one starter and a key bench player from this year’s roster.
What they return and who will be replacing Bowden, Turner, and Johnson give Vol fans plenty of reason to be excited.
SEC Defensive Player of the Year Yves Pons and Second Team All-SEC forward John Fulkerson will headline the Vols’ group of returners, and they’ll be joined by freshman phenom Santiago Vescovi at point guard and former five-star Josiah-Jordan James. Freshmen Olivier Nkamhoua, Davonte Gaines, and Drew Pember will be a year older, and seven-footer Uros Plavsic will have another year under his belt as well.
Plus, when you look at who is set to join the roster next season, the future looks even brighter.
Five-star guard Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson will fight for an immediate starting spot, and Oregon guard transfer Victor Bailey Jr. will become eligible and give them plenty of competition as well. Four-star small forward Corey Walker brings a lot of versatility as a wing and forward, giving UT’s bench another strong piece. There’s even a chance four-star wide receiver signee Malachi Wideman could play off the bench for the men’s basketball team, and four-star athlete Dee Beckwith is also a basketball prospect.
Kentucky is the only SEC team ranked higher in Borzello’s preseason top 25, as the Wildcats come in at No. 5 on his list. But as Borzello notes, Kentucky’s roster is very much in flux right now, as Tyrese Maxey, Ashton Hagans, Nick Richards, and Immanuel Quickley could all go pro instead of returning to school for next season.
But as always is the case with Kentucky, they have plenty of reinforcements coming.
The Wildcats have the No. 1 recruiting class in the 2020 cycle on 247Sports, and a trio of five-stars headline the class. Kentucky’s other three signees are all ranked inside the top-50 recruits in the 2020 class.
Other SEC teams in Borzello’s way-too-early top 25 are LSU (18th) and Arkansas (20th). Florida is right outside the top 25, coming in at 29th in Borzell’s “next in line” category.