Rick Barnes inked his best recruiting class as head coach of Tennessee during this past recruiting cycle.
Led by five-star guards Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson to pair with four-star forward Corey Walker, Tennessee finished with the No. 4 overall recruiting class according to the 247Sports Composite ranking. In Barnes’ five previous classes, the Vols finished 28th (2019), 117th (2018), 54th (2017), 49th (2016), and 60th (2015) in recruiting.
Tennessee basketball’s best recruiting class under Barnes has the Vol hype train for the 2020-21 season rolling at full steam despite a disappointing 2019-20 season that was cut short due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Key players return from that squad, however, and when you add those experienced players with the Vols’ incoming freshmen, Tennessee has been projected to be one of the top seeds in next year’s NCAA Tournament by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. The Vols are also viewed by college basketball writers across the country as a top 15 team in most way-too-early top 25 rankings.
The key point for each projection from the media has remained the same: it all starts with Barnes’ highly-touted incoming recruiting class.
“Jaden Springer, he and Keon Johnson were guys that we targeted really three years ago,” Barnes Barnes recently said on Fox’s college basketball writer Aaron Torres’ show “The Aaron Torres Podcast.” “Corey Walker. Those were guys that we targeted and we knew we wanted them to be part of our program. They’re very talented, high-level skill players. They are.
“And what we like about those guys as much as anything is the fact that they’ll bite you. You know what I mean by that? They’re very competitive. We’re really excited about that.”
Springer, Johnson, and Walker aren’t the only exciting additions to the program, however. The Vols also added Sacred Heart graduate transfer forward E.J. Anosike to the mix, and after sitting out a year due to transfer rules, Oregon transfer Victor Bailey Jr. will be a welcomed addition.
“(E.J. Anosike is) a guy that played at Sacred Heart and was a double-double guy there,” Barnes explained. “His sister played here and won two national championships with Pat Summitt. She was a very competitive, hard-nosed player. Great rebounder. And E.J. is a terrific rebounder. But he can still do a lot of other things.
“We think they’re all going to make an impact some way, somehow. But like I said, we have a good core group back. And we have (Victor) Bailey who transferred in from Oregon. What we’ve added, as much as anything, offensively we have guys we think that can break people down off the dribble a little more than we’ve had in the past. We think we can do some of that. But again, there’s not one guy that we signed that doesn’t have the ability to really lock in and guard someone one-on-one. That’s what we’re really excited about.”
Tennessee’s defense has struggled the past two seasons after being elite two seasons ago. The Vols ranked sixth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency with a rating of 97.2 according to KenPom.com in 2017-18 — the season in which Barnes put the Vols on the map and first made the NCAA Tournament in his time as head coach.
The Vols’ defense slipped the following season in 2018-19 when the Vols made a run to the Sweet Sixteen. UT’s offense was potent, but the defense fell to 42nd in KenPom’s rankings. This past season, one that saw Tennessee finish 17-14 overall on the year, the Vols ranked 62nd in defensive efficiency.
With the incoming talent, Barnes is looking forward to what Tennessee can be on defense this upcoming season.
“We’re all excited,” Barnes said. “We think we have a chance to possibly have the best defensive team we’ve had since we’ve been here.”
In addition to the new arrivals to Tennessee’s active roster, the Vols return All-SEC second team member John Fulkerson, SEC Defensive Player of the Year Yves Pons, former five-star Josiah-Jordan James, and point guard Santiago Vescovi. All four players were full-time starters for UT last season, and Pons and James in particular were outstanding defenders.