Tennessee do it all sophomore Josiah-Jordan James sat in the bowels of Bankers Fieldhouse Arena staring blankly at a screen talking to the media. The fifth-seeded Vols were just embarrassed by 12th-seed Oregon State 70-56 to end an underwhelming season.
While James’ stare was blank and his voice was full of anger and disappointment, his words spoke volumes. The 6-foot-6 forward shared his disappointment in how Yves Pons and John Fulkerson’s careers ended— Fulkerson ended up returning for a sixth season— and vowed to be better.
“You live and you learn,” James said. “This year I was a leader. I wasn’t a very good one. It showed today, but moving forward I can only hope to be better and I will be better for this team, for this university, for this program and I just hope we can get back here again next year and we got a taste of it but didn’t have what it took to stay here.”
James, who had wrist surgery this offseason from an injury he suffered in Tennessee’s 80-61 win over Kansas in late January, is making good on that promise.
The junior and former five-star recruit met with the media last week for the first time since the season ended. When asked where he’s grown the most this offseason, the answer was simple and straightforward.
“I’d say my leadership,” James said. “Just holding myself to the highest standard possible. Holding myself accountable each and every day. Holding others accountable. Just being able to be somebody that coach can count on, that coach— none of the coaches— have to do each and everything. That we are a team led unit with coaches just in the background. I think my leadership, as well as others, has stepped up.”
That leadership has been clear in the three Tennessee practices the media has been able to watch this fall. James is a vocal and passionate leader at nearly all times.
The vocal leadership is something Tennessee missed last year when it jumped out to a 7-0 start, climbing as high as No. 6 in the nation before fizzling out with a 6-6 February and March.
Pons and Fulkerson, while solid players who did the right things on and off the court, aren’t the most vocal guys— particularly Pons. Fulkerson— whose return to Tennessee bolsters a thin Vols’ front court— isn’t afraid to speak up, but not to the rate James has this preseason.
The relaxing COVID-19 restrictions have made team leadership and team camaraderie easier this season. Tennessee’s players are back to spending extended time together off the court, something that wasn’t possible last season due to contact tracing concerns.
“I’d definitely say that this is the closest team that I’ve been on since being here, and that’s not a knock on any of the other teams,” James said. “This unit is definitely close. We’ve done a lot of activities outside of basketball and we really just like each other. We have a genuine love and care for each other outside of the game. So I’d say this team is a close knit group and we really like each other.”
That’s an eye popping statement from James, especially considering this Tennessee team has eight newcomers and seven true freshmen.
However, seventh year head coach Rick Barnes backed up James’ statement when talking to the media at the start of preseason practice.
“I think when you talk about chemistry, I think it starts with if there is a genuine love and likeness for each other,” Barnes said. “I do know this, this group likes each other. I know they like being together. They would tell you to the man that a year ago was really hard. We’ve done some team type of things whether it’s going to paintball or something like that. They would tell you how good that feels to them and how much they missed doing things as a team in the past year. That part of it has been fun.”
Perhaps the best schedule a Tennessee basketball team has ever faced will test James’ leadership and the Vols’ camaraderie. Tennessee plays 10 games against teams ranked in the preseason top 25.
With a schedule that hard and a team full of newcomers, losses are inevitable. The key will be growth throughout the season and the leadership of James and other veterans.