The last two months have been a whirlwind for Tennessee’s men’s basketball program.
Within a week at the beginning of March, Rick Barnes’ squad went from playing for an NIT berth to beating Florida at home and Kentucky on the road to position themselves for a chance to make the NCAA Tournament. That following Saturday, March 6th, Tennessee fell to Auburn in blowout fashion at home. Despite the loss to Bruce Pearl’s Tigers, the Vols still had an opportunity, though slim, to make the Big Dance.
The Vols never got a chance to pursue that chance, however, as the SEC Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak before Tennessee could tip-off in its tournament opener against Alabama. Following the cancellation of the conference tournament, the NCAA Tournament and the NIT were then canceled, thus officially ending the 2019-20 college basketball season.
Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes has repeatedly said in interviews since that the cancelations were the correct decision to be made, and instead of dwelling on what was lost, Tennessee is looking ahead to the 2020-21 season and what that could bring.
“We’re all excited,” Barnes recently said on Fox’s college basketball writer Aaron Torres’ show “The Aaron Torres Podcast.” “I know the players are excited, they’re all chomping at the bit to get back. The coaches are.
“We think we have a chance to possibly have the best defensive team we’ve had since we’ve been here.”
Tennessee 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. That season, Tennessee led the SEC in defensive efficiency, too.
Tennessee’s defense slipped the following season, the 2018-19 campaign in which the Vols made a run to the Sweet Sixteen, to 42nd defensively. But during that season, Tennessee had the third-best offense in all of college basketball with a 122.7 adjusted offensive rating.
This past season, the Vols struggled on both ends of the floor, especially on offense. Tennessee ranked 62nd in defensive efficiency (95.8) and 96th in offensive efficiency (106.6).
With the addition of the No. 4 overall recruiting class, Sacred Heart grad transfer EJ Anosike, and Oregon transfer Victor Bailey Jr. (who is eligible after sitting out this past season), Tennessee has a chance to get back to the defensive mindset that spearheaded a share of the SEC regular season title in 2017-18. When you add those new faces to the returning roster of SEC Defensive Player of the Year Yves Pons, Second Team All-SEC forward John Fulkerson, combo guard Josiah-Jordan James, point guard Santiago Vescovi, and basically all of UT’s bench players from last season, and the Vols’ defensive potential has Barnes optimistic.
“We know we’ve got some good returning players that this year they got put into the fire,” Barnes said. “They got to learn a lot in high level, competitive games. What we added, we know this recruiting class is going to make an impact.
“And like I said, we think we have a chance to be as good defensively as maybe any team we’ve had.”