Parrish: Vols “Should be the Favorite” in SEC over Kentucky

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    (Photo via Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics)

    After a stellar two-year stretch that featured an SEC regular season title, back-to-back appearances in the SEC Tournament Finals, back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths, a Sweet Sixteen run, and a month-long stay at No. 1 in the AP Poll, Tennessee’s men’s basketball program came back down to earth last season.

    The Vols lost four of their five starters from the previous two seasons heading into the 2019-20 campaign, and then starting point guard Lamonte Turner elected to have season-ending shoulder surgery in December, ending his UT career and giving the Vols another hole to fill.

    Even with the impressive play of freshman point guard Santiago Vescovi as a mid-year enrollee and the improved play of Yves Pons and John Fulkerson, Tennessee could never quite find consistency on offense to match their defensive intensity, and UT’s final record sat at 17-14 when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the SEC Tournament to be canceled the day the Vols were set to take on Alabama in the second round.

    Though last season was a drop-off from the previous two years, Tennessee returns almost all of their key contributors for this upcoming 2020-21 season, and the Vols also welcome in an elite signing class and grad transfer forward EJ Anosike.

    Because of that, Gary Parrish of CBS Sports not only expects the Vols to have a bounce-back year this upcoming season, but he also thinks UT should be the favorites to win the SEC.

    In a collaborative piece on CBS Sports, Parrish picked the Vols as his major-conference team to have a resurgence in the 2020-21 season.

    Here’s what Parrish had to say about the Vols for the upcoming men’s basketball season:

    Tennessee had a chance to be good — not great, but definitely good — last season. But when Lamonte Turner decided to have season-ending shoulder surgery in December, the Vols’ ceiling was lowered considerably. They immediately lost their next two games, dropped to 8-5 overall, and then limped to a 17-14 record featuring a mediocre 9-9 mark in the SEC.

    If there was an NCAA Tournament in 2020, Tennessee would not have made it.

    But a bounce-back season is on tap.

    Assuming Yves Pons withdraws from the 2020 NBA Draft, Tennessee will return five of its top six scorers and pair them with the fourth-best recruiting class in the country, according to 247Sports, headlined by five-star prospects Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson. That’s a super-strong roster for Rick Barnes, who will have a realistic chance to finish in the top two of the SEC standings for the third time in a four-year span. In fact, in my opinion, Tennessee should be the favorite in the SEC on paper, just ahead of John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, who are basically starting from scratch once again. It could take UK a while to get going, if it gets going at all. But the Vols are experienced and talented enough to be terrific from start to finish.

    While Tennessee has the chance to return the vast majority of their production from last season all while bolstering the roster with a couple five-stars, four-star forward Corey Walker Jr., and Sacred Heart grad transfer EJ Anosike, Kentucky has had to essentially completely overhaul their roster from last season.

    Immanuel Quickley, Nick Richards, Tyrese Maxey, Ashton Hagans, EJ Montgomery, Nate Sestina, and Johnny Juzang are all gone from the Wildcats’ 2019-20 roster, and only rising sophomore Keion Brooks Jr. returns. Brooks averaged 4.5 points and 3.2 rebounds in 15.1 minutes per game as a freshman last season.

    But in true Kentucky fashion, the Wildcats have brought in a high-profile recruiting class to try and fill those holes.

    Tennessee’s 2020 signing class in men’s basketball is second only to Kentucky’s in the SEC. The Wildcats signed five-stars BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke along with top-75 prospects Isaiah Jackson, Devin Askew, Lance Ware, and Cam’Ron Fletcher. Along with that, Kentucky brought in transfers from other programs, including seven-footer Olivier Sarr from Wake Forest, Jacob Toppin from Rhode Island, and Davion Mintz from Creighton.

    Though Kentucky’s additions seem promising, they’ll basically have an entirely new roster for the upcoming season. Tennessee, meanwhile, gets to supplement an already solid rotation that possesses a good amount of experience with even more talent.

    The 2020-21 men’s basketball season could be different than most thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but one thing is for certain: Expectations will certainly be high for the Vols this upcoming season, and UT should be right in the thick of things for the SEC regular season title.