RTI Mailbag: It’s (Almost) Basketball Time In Tennessee!

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    Photo Credit: Knoxville News Sentinel

    Tennessee football is at its lone bye week of the season. However, Tennessee basketball is just 13 days from opening up its season against UT-Martin at Thompson-Boling Arena.

    The Vols are preparing for a grueling out-of-conference and conference schedule while breaking in eight newcomers. The RTI team answers all your questions on the 2021-22 Tennessee basketball team with the season just a few weeks away.

    Tennessee faces a brutal non-conference schedule. What do they need to do in that portion of the schedule for you to feel good about their chances to earn a four-seed or better?

    Ric Butler: So going back to the 2021 March Madness tournament, let’s look at the four 4-seeds as a baseline to see what we’re working with, on average. Virginia (18-7, 13-4 ACC), Purdue (18–10, 13-6 Big Ten), Oklahoma State (29-9, 11-7 Big12), Florida State (18-7, 11-4 ACC). While, yes, last season was still a little all over the place thanks to COVID restrictions, it still works as a comparison. Each of those teams four or less non-conference losses. I think that’s a good place to start when thinking about what needs to happen for Tennessee to make it to a four seed or better. Villanova, UNC/Purdue, Colorado, Texas Tech, Memphis, Arizona, and Texas are ultimately going to be where Tennessee’s non-conference portion either makes or breaks. But, while the season waits to unfold, it’s hard to say what wins will be the most valuable before the teams are on the court. Plus, there are other factors at play. I would say that Tennessee will need to come out of the non-conference play with less than four losses. But, who knows, say they have five or six. But say that Tennessee, for the most part, then runs the table in its key SEC games, against teams like Arkansas, Auburn, and Kentucky. In my opinion, that’s making up some pretty good ground late in the season near tournament time. All of that goes to say, there are so many variables before the season even starts. Still, though, I’ll say that Tennessee will want to come out of non-conference play with four or fewer losses in order to set them up for a strong season in conference play.

    Ryan Schumpert: This is a good question and here’s Tennessee’s schedule so you can follow along as I ramble here. Let’s start by saying Tennessee needs to run the table against UT-Martin, ETSU, Tennessee Tech, Presbyterian, UNC Greensboro, and USC Upstate. Then you have the seven games against quality opponents: Villanova, at Colorado, Texas Tech, Memphis, vs. Arizona, at Texas, and either Purdue or North Carolina. I think there are two paths here that would set Tennessee up to be around a four seed without accounting for SEC games. I think Tennessee going 4-3 with losses to Villanova and Texas and someone else would have the Vols as a four-seed. If the Vols can pick up a marquee win over KenPom preseason top 10 teams Villanova or Purdue— at a neutral site— or a marquee win at KenPom preseason top 15 team Texas then I think Tennessee could go 3-4 in that stretch and still be around a four or five seed. The path without uncertainty would include Tennessee going 4-3 with one of those three marquee wins I mentioned. If you add two neutral site wins over KenPom preseason top 15 teams Texas Tech and Memphis then I think Tennessee would be giving itself a great chance to be a two or three-seed with a strong conference slate. So to completely answer your question, I would say Tennessee needs to go 10-3 or 9-4 in the out-of-conference slate. The Vols won’t play Texas until late January, so if Tennessee is 9-3 when they open SEC play at Alabama on Dec. 29 I think they’ll be a four-seed or better in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology. Let’s revisit this in two months.

    Hearing a lot of buzz about Olivier Nkamhoua this offseason. With Barnes’ track record for turning lower-rated players into stars (Admiral, Grant, Bone, Pons) should we expect the same from Olivier this season?

    Ric: Even going back to last year, we’ve heard some rumblings that Nkamhoua could be a long-term project, but one that could also skyrocket like Williams or Schofield. I don’t want to make any predictions to that degree, considering those guys were NBA draft picks. Regardless, I do think that after sitting, waiting, watching, and learning, Nkamhoua’s role will significantly jump up this year. In my opinion, I think his productivity will do. One thing that I am interested to see from the Vols’ team is A. how often players are being rotated and B. what kind of offense is being played with each unit on the court. I think Tennessee has a fairly good amount of talent, so potentially, it could allow them to focus on some players’ strengths when they have the ball. I think that could all be true for Nkamhoua. Again, though, Tennessee has talent. So I think Nkamhoua will be a versatile player, maybe not showing out in every stat category, but having the ability to show up on several stat categories. I think Nkamhoua will give Tennessee a balanced player who can play defense, shoot from the perimeter, guard a forward in the paint, and rebound. Do I expect Nkamhoua to be on the level of Bone, Williams, and Schofield towards the end of their career? No, not particularly. Simply because Tennessee has deeper talent than it did then. But I do expect his role to increase as he continues to develop into the type of player that is productive in the Barnes system.

    Ryan: Olivier Nkamhoua was a player I had my eye on from the first practice we were able to watch this preseason. Rick Barnes bet on Nkamhoua and Uros Plavsic this offseason, electing not to bring in any transfer big men. And Nkamhoua has impressed me so far. There’s no doubt he has looked better, really in every facet. The Finland native is more confident and decisive, looks better on defense, and has grown his game by extending his jump shot to the three-point line. However, I don’t think you should expect him to be developed into a star this season. Of the players you threw out, Williams was a star pretty quickly on campus, Bone and Schofield earned consistent playing time for two seasons before developing into a star and Pons became a star because of his freakish defensive ability. I think Kyle Alexander is the level of jump you could see from Nkamhoua this season. Alexander averaged 1.7 points and 3.2 rebounds as a freshman and 3.3 points and four rebounds as a sophomore before breaking out as a reliable role player as a junior, averaging 5.6 points and 5.6 rebounds. More than that though, Alexander increased his minutes by six per game, as well as his assists, blocks, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. Nkamhoua averaged 3.3 points and three rebounds as a freshman and 2.3 points and 1.3 rebounds as a sophomore. Could Nkamhoua make a bigger jump and average around eight points and six rebounds a game? Certainly, it wouldn’t surprise me at all, but more than the stats it’s about Nkamhoua being able to give Tennessee reliable minutes the way Kyle Alexander did his junior season. If the junior power forward plays 20 minutes a game and Rick Barnes and Tennessee fans feels comfortable with him being on the court, playing good defense, rebounding and making correct decisions on the offensive end, I don’t care what Nkamhoua’s point total looks like. That would be a big step forward for him and would sure up Tennessee’s front court.

    I saw where Barnes is really impressed with Vescovi’s progress. What part of his game is progressing on the practice floor?

    Ric: Players are raving about his shooting ability this fall camp. He said a week or two ago himself that defense has been one of the biggest things he worked on during the off-season. From limited viewing, he just looks to always be involved with the team, in the rotation, with the offense. Vescovi won’t just be relied upon as one of the premeire playmakers on this team, but he will need to be a leader on this team, especially with so many fresh faces. However, it looks like Vescovi has already welcomed in that challenge with open arms, being that leader around his teammates.

    Ryan: Barnes has definitely been impressed by Vescovi’s development this offseason and talked glowingly about him Tuesday. Watching him in practice it’s not like he looks like a completely different player or anything. The junior guard’s defense continues to develop— which it has from the day he got on campus. Barnes credited that development to Vescovi being in the best shape he has at any point since he’s been in Knoxville. I also think Vescovi has looked better scoring within the three-point line. Vescovi’s understanding and comfortability in Tennessee’s system is why I think Barnes has raved about Vescovi this preseason. With two years in the system and now for the first time in his carer a regular offseason, I think Vesocvi is ready for anything Barnes can throw at him and completely understand his coach’s expectations. For instance, at Tuesday’s practice, Barnes was getting on Justin Powell for how he was setting up the defense to come off an off ball screen. The seventh-year head coach pulled Powell and had him watch how Vescovi did it.

    Is NIL hurting Tennessee in recruiting?

    Ric: During his press conference on Tuesday, it didn’t sound that way. It was interesting to hear Barnes talk about how each player is different. Some ask about NIL right away, some never mention it at all during the recruitment process, but most have some kind of understanding. Barnes says that Tennessee is a great place for NIL, and frankly, he is right. This is a flagship University, a major athletic program, an enormous city, and a passionate fanbase. I don’t believe Tennessee is being hurt by the NIL, and I don’t really know why Tennessee wouldn’t be able to stack up against other programs. Is Kansas, or Arizona really able to make a player THAT much more money than the University of Tennessee at Knoxville? Honestly, I don’t know. Mainly because we haven’t seen a full year of NIL in action. I think it will be some time before we can fully determine how NIL is impacting recruiting over a long-term basis. Kids, companies, everyone is still trying to figure it out. Again, Barnes says some kids never even bring it up.

    Ryan: Rick Barnes was adamant on Tuesday that NIL was not negatively affecting recruiting, but in the first recruiting cycle since NIL became a thing the Vols have struck out on a number of top prospects. Jalen Hood Schifiano picked Indiana over Tennessee, Dillon Mitchell picked Texas over Tennessee, Julian Phillips picked LSU over Tennessee and five-star Cason Wallace is heavily trending towards Kentucky after looking like a Vols lean this summer. So Tennessee’s recruiting is going to take a step back this year, and that’s not anything Barnes should hang his head about. The Vols are coming off back-to-back top five recruiting classes and still have a commit from a four-star point guard and are in the thick of four-star guard Chandler Jackson’s recruitment. Jackson plans on committing before the early signing date and if he chooses Tennessee that’s a solid haul entering the spring period. But still, the Vols have missed out on recruits that they would have liked to land and the question is a fair one. Frankly, I don’t really know. It’s plausible that they could be struggling to adapt as quickly to the new NIL rules as other schools. However, there are other factors that could have contributed to not landing some of these big recruits. For one, Tennessee has two new assistant coaches this offseason so they’ve had to play catch up in some cases getting to know kids — though Rod Clark’s relationship with Cason Wallace is the only reason Tennessee is in his top group. The last two recruiting cycles, Tennessee has signed four five-stars. Three of them were from Tennessee and the other was from North Carolina. Go back a cycle earlier and the Vols landed a five-star from South Carolina. Most of Tennessee’s top targets in this class were from Florida or Texas. Phillips being from South Carolina is the one exception here. Finally, sometimes you lose recruiting battles to other good schools. Beating Kentucky, Texas and Indiana for recruits is hard. So that was a lot of analysis of Tennessee recruiting to say I’m not sure, it’s worth monitoring going forward and I wouldn’t be close to hitting the panic button when it comes to the future of the Vols’ recruiting.

    Any analysis as to why Rick Barnes doesn’t have much success at the NCAA Tournament and what he can do this year to overcome that “perception”?

    Ric: We are so far away from this year’s tournament, all I can say is that you can silence the negatives by proving them wrong – in this case, winning a couple of games in the tournament. Tennessee has been an example of why the NCAA tournament, to me, is the most difficult event/tournament in college sports. It is a giant contraption of 68 teams, all just looking to win one game at a time. I think in some cases, it’s been running into an incredibly hot team, like Oregon State last year. In other cases, it’s mismanagement in-game, and sometimes it’s just plain bad luck. I think that one would expect Barnes’ to have more tournament success, but isn’t that a statement that’s based on regular-season success? We know that Barnes can win games and out-coach on opposing coach. It’s a lot to ask for in the tournament, but it’s also where elite coaches make their legacy.

    Ryan: I don’t know if it’s fair to say a coach that’s made the Final Four “doesn’t have much success” in the NCAA Tournament, but I do agree with the overall sentiment that Barnes has struggled in the tournament and it’s been a red flag on an otherwise pretty flawless track record. Despite making the tournament 11 times in the past 15 years, Barnes’ teams have made it to the Sweet 16 or further just twice. That’s not very good. I believe Tennessee is a Sweet 16 level basketball program and besides the NCAA Tournament, Barnes has 100% made Tennessee a program that can compete to make the Sweet 16 every season, and saying UT is a Sweet 16 level program doesn’t mean they should be making the Sweet 16 every year but should have a chance and should make it every two or three years. So why has he struggled in the tournament? This is a tough question, especially considering I haven’t watched any of those NCAA Tournament losses at Texas in the past few years. For one, I think Barnes’ in game coaching is one of his biggest weaknesses. For instance, leaving Grant Williams on the bench to start overtime against Purdue in 2019 was incredibly befuddling and a decision that ended up costing Tennessee. At Tennessee, Barnes has never developed a deep bench and the Vols have relied on seven to eight players to play almost all 200 minutes. That’s a negative when you get to the NCAA Tournament and you’re playing on one days rest at the end of a five-month season. Then there’s certainly been some bad luck. Tennessee lost to Loyola Marymount on a last second shot where engineers are still trying to figure out the launch angle and spin that allowed Clayton Custer’s line drive jump shot to hit the front of the rim, bounce up, hit the backboard and fall through the net. For the first time all season, Tennessee had an injury issue in that game that forced them to start an unready John Fulkerson instead of starting center Kyle Alexander. The margin for error is just so small in postseason basketball and the smallest things can be the difference in a win and a loss— like the best free throw shooting team in the SEC making 14-of-28 from the charity stripe in an overtime loss in the Sweet 16. From what I can gather, at Tennessee Barnes’ tournament issues have been a mix of bad luck, his in gaming coaching shortcomings and a lack of depth. What can Barnes do to overcome that perception this season? Make it to the Sweet 16. One final point, Scott Drew and Tony Bennett couldn’t get it done in the tournament either … until they did. NCAA Tournament struggles don’t make you a bad coach. No other postseason format sets up the potential for bad luck and failure like the NCAA Tournament. It just takes one run to exorcise all those demons.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.