Today, Monday, April 6, 2020, was supposed to be the 2019-20 National Championship Game in men’s basketball. But because of COVID-19, no NCAA Tournament was held. Instead, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi is looking ahead to next season on this Championship Monday.
Lunardi has Rick Barnes’ 2020-21 Tennessee basketball team making the field of the 2021 tournament as a 5-seed, making them one of the top 20 teams in the tournament. In version one of Lunardi’s way-too-early March Madness bracket, the Vols would play their first round game in San Jose, California in the Midwest Region. Their opponent would be the winner of 12-seed Saint Louis and 12-seed Arizona State after the two teams play in Dayton in one of the ‘First Four’ games.
Should Barnes’ squad win their first round game, they would face either 4-seed Florida State or 13-seed South Dakota State for a chance to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Creighton is the 1-seed in Tennessee’s side of the bracket.
“With an understanding that all of us in college basketball are blessed to work in life’s toy department, we press on toward a 2020-21 season with a hopeful eye and a wistful heart,” Lunardi writes. “The 2019-20 tourney-less campaign left us worse than in the lurch. It left us with a suddenness that was unprecedented and, Lord willing, unrepeatable.
“Our methodology for future brackets is based on an algorithm of returning minutes per team, the established level of production of those minutes and guesstimates of how (and how well) a team’s non-returning minutes will be replaced. The NBA draft process and NCAA transfer portal present moving targets for everyone, so this bracket might be obsolete for at least some teams in a day, a week or a month. We’ll update to reflect that movement as frequently as possible.”
Tennessee is one of six projected SEC teams to make the Big Dance. The Vols are joined by 1-seed Kentucky, 6-seed Florida, 7-seed LSU, 8-seed Arkansas, and 11-seed South Carolina. The Gamecocks are projected to be one of the last four teams to make the tournament, while Alabama is one of the projected first four teams to miss it.
“Know that a typical April bracket will correctly forecast about half of the top seeds for the following season,” Lunardi writes. “It will identify about two-thirds of the eventual at-large pool. And its misses will be glaring.”
The Vols just wrapped up a 17-14 season in year five under Rick Barnes. Tennessee finished eighth in the SEC with a conference record of 9-9 after being projected to finish fifth in the preseason. UT was supposed to play 9-seed Alabama in the SEC Tournament on Thursday, March 12th, until the SEC Tournament was canceled due to the Coronavirus.
In all likelihood, the Vols would’ve missed the NCAA Tournament this year had it been held. But Tennessee will be right in the thick of the tournament conversation next season.
Tennessee welcomes in arguably its greatest recruiting class in program history for the 2020-21 season. The Vols signed the No. 5 overall recruiting class in the country that consisted of five-star shooting guard Jaden Springer, five-star shooting guard Keon Johnson, and four-star forward Corey Walker. Current four-star Vol wide receiver signee Malachi Wideman could also be part of the class and could potentially play both sports.
UT returns the majority of its rotation from this past season in addition to bringing in one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Second Team All-SEC selection John Fulkerson and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Yves Pons return for their senior seasons, while point guard Santiago Vescovi and fellow rising sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James also return after showing promise in their rookie campaigns as starters.
Tennessee will also welcome two key transfers to the rotation in Oregon transfer Victor Bailey Jr. — who transferred to UT last offseason but will now be eligible this upcoming season — and Sacred Heart graduate transfer E.J. Anosike.