Tennessee’s 2019-20 men’s basketball season didn’t go according to plan.
The Vols started off the season with a 9-3 record with wins over then-ranked No. 20 Washington in Toronto on Nov. 16 and then-ranked No. 20 VCU on Nov. 30 courtesy of a last second three-pointer from Lamonte Turner. But following a Dec. 21 win over Jacksonville State, Turner opted to end his senior season early due to a shoulder injury.
To compound the loss of Turner, five-star freshman Josiah-Jordan James was dealing with nagging injuries that limited his production, Jordan Bowden was in an extended shooting slump, and Arizona State transfer Uros Plavsic wasn’t ruled eligible until the fourth game of conference play on Jan. 15. Throw in the midseason addition of freshman point guard Santiago Vescovi, and UT’s roster had little to no stability for about a month.
Tennessee began to find its rhythm towards the end of the season as its final two wins of the regular season came against arch-rivals Florida and Kentucky — notably with the Vols’ victory over the Wildcats coming in Rupp Arena. John Fulkerson, Yves Pons, mid-year freshman enrollee Santiago Vescovi, Bowden, and James were beginning to hit their stride when the season was canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Though the season ended in disappointment with the SEC Tournament being canned, the momentum built up towards the end of the season is beginning to bleed over into the offseason for the upcoming 2020-21 season.
“Tennessee should be picked No. 1 or No. 2 in the SEC,” NCAA.com’s college basketball writer Andy Katz wrote in his first Power 36 college basketball rankings on Wednesday. “Only two seniors were on the roster. The Vols have a top five recruiting class led by Jaden Springer.”
Katz ranked Tennessee No. 16 nationally in his first preseason rankings. The Vols were one of three SEC teams ranked. Kentucky was ranked No. 9 while Florida was ranked No. 29. Arkansas, Auburn, and LSU were on the bubble of the top 36.
“We’re gonna have depth,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said later that day on Katz’s March Madness 365 podcast. “I think we’re gonna be a much better defensive team. I think we’ll rebound the ball better. I think we’ll be able to beat people off the bounce more. … I’m excited about our team going forward. I just think that we’ve got some good players coming in that’s gonna help us, and I do know the guys coming back are gonna work hard and get better.
“We think we’ll have as good a chance as anybody next year.”
Tennessee will be deep and talented next season. Not only are Bowden and Jalen Johnson the only notable departures from the roster this past season, but the Vols also add an important graduate transfer from Sacred Heart in E.J. Anosike and a top five recruiting class.
Barnes’ best recruiting class while in Knoxville is led by a pair of five-star shooting guards in Charlotte, North Carolina native Jaden Springer and Bell Buckle, Tennessee native Keon Johnson. Tennessee also signed four-star forward Corey Walker Jr. out of Chatham, Virginia as part of the highly-touted class.
“I think both of those guys (Springer and Johnson) bring a level of tenacity,” Barnes said. “They’re big-time competitors. They both have the ability to be just terrific, terrific defensive players. Both of them just are now scratching the surface of what they will become as offensive players, but their pit bull, bulldog-type attitudes are gonna give us something on the perimeter that we need.”
Tennessee finished eighth in the SEC this past season, but the Vols were a top-three team in the conference the previous two seasons. The Vols split the regular season title with Auburn in the 2017-18 season and finished third in the league in the 2018-19 season. Tennessee made it to the SEC Tournament Finals in both seasons.
Under Barnes, the Vols are 49-36 in regular season SEC games, going 37-17 in conference play over the last three seasons.