Five Answers To Tennessee Basketball’s Preseason Questions

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    Sweet 16 3/24 Player Performance Doubles: #5 Houston Vs. #1 Arizona

    Tennessee’s men’s basketball season is over with the Vols posting a 27-8 (14-4 SEC record). The Vols won the second most games of the Rick Barnes era and claimed Tennessee’s first SEC Tournament title since 1979.

    The Vols season ended earlier than they wanted but was undoubtedly a success. 

    At the start of practice in October, I wrote about five questions whose answers would have major repercussions on the success of the 2021-22 Vols. This is the quote-tweet article of that piece as I’ll look at how Tennessee answered those questions.

    If you want to look at why I thought these questions were important and see some of my preseason predictions — good and bad — take a look back at the original article here.

    How Quickly Do The New Look Vols Mesh?

    It definitely took Tennessee some time. While the starting lineup looked pretty similar in game one as it did game 35, the rotation changed dramatically.

    I was high on Zakai Zeigler after watching the Vols’ practice a handful of times in the preseason but couldn’t have predicted how large of a role he would carve out on the team. Shooting guards Justin Powell and Victor Bailey Jr. found differing sized roles over the course of the season.

    Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and Jonas Aidoo roles increased as the season progressed but more on that below.

    The Vols earned some solid wins early in the season — most notably the Arizona win before Christmas — but Tennessee couldn’t find an offensive identity until after that blowout loss at Kentucky.

    Tennessee didn’t start really finding its groove until late January and you could argue they didn’t truly mesh at its max until after Olivier Nkamhoua’s injury forced the Vols to play small ball more frequently as the calendar turned to February.

    Has Tennessee Improved Its Post Depth?

    Yes. Tennessee absolutely improved its post depth both with development inside the program and bringing in outside help.

    Before his injury, Olivier Nkamhoua was one of the most improved players on the roster. The junior didn’t have the consistency Rick Barnes would have liked, but he was playing better-and-better as the year developed and was Tennessee’s best interior defender.

    The biggest surprise to me was Uros Plavsic development. Frankly, I didn’t think Plavsic could play at this level but he made me eat crow this season. He’s not a star, he isn’t going to play 20 minutes a night and there are games where he can’t play more than a few minutes due to matchups, but he absolutely can play at this level and helped Tennessee this year.

    Huntley-Hatfield had a similar season to what I expected though things truly clicked for him a little later than I expected. I wrote that I’d be surprised if Jonas Aidoo earned a major role on this team and he likely wouldn’t have if it weren’t for Nkamhoua’s injury.

    Still, the fact that Tennessee turned to its bench and got real contributions from the freshman after Nkamhoua went down shows just how much the Vols’ post depth improved.

    In the end, the real weakness of Tennessee’s front court was that they didn’t have one player emerge as the go-to big man who could get a basket when needed.

    How Big Of A Step Back Does Tennessee Take Defensively?

    Somehow it didn’t. It is still truly unfathomable to me that Tennessee lost Yves Pons, Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer to the NBA and they didn’t take a step back defensively, but got better.

    The Vols went from fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency to third losing three-elite defensive players.

    Credit for that goes to a lot of people. Nkamhoua and Aidoo gave Tennessee rim protection in Pons absence. Freshmen Kennedy Chandler and Zeigler bought in to playing high-level defense and were elite at turning opponents over.

    Tennessee ranked sixth nationally in defensive steal percentage and it was its biggest jump forward on that defensive end.

    So many people contributed to this stunning improvement. Santiago Vescovi working himself into great shape and playing strong defense 31 minutes a night while moving incessantly on the offensive end is remarkably incredible. It makes me ill thinking about doing the cardio Vescovi had to do to be able to be in that elite of shape.

    Despite not earning SEC All-Defensive honors, Josiah-Jordan James was the best defender on Tennessee’s team. He was dialed in at an elite rate and his athleticism made him effective defending power forwards and shooting guards. He could onto talented guards and hang with bigs like Keion Brooks allowing Tennessee to go small-ball and play its most effective offensive lineup.

    Then lastly, an abundance of credit goes to Barnes and associate head coach Mike Schwartz. Schwartz is the mastermind behind the Vols’ tenacious defense and his defensive mind and teaching ability is truly elite.

    Schwartz is off to be the newest head coach at East Carolina and that departure will likely have me asking this same question next October.

    Playing defense at the rate Tennessee has the last two years is far from a given and the Vols were the only top five 2021 defense to still rank in the top five in 2022. The other schools rank 32nd, 18th, 93rd and 77th in 2022.

    How Does Having A True Point Guard Affect The Vols’ Role Players?

    I’d say a pretty sizable one. And not only did Tennessee have one true point guard but they had two with Zeigler’s emergence.

    With the help of Gregg Polinksy, Barnes remade his offense putting trust in Kennedy Chandler to run the show. The benefits were palpable.

    Playing off the ball, Santiago Vescovi made a major leap in his junior season. The Uruguay native worked his way into elite shape making him a tireless defender and one of the SEC’s best players moving without the basketball. He shot his way into the Tennessee record books in the process.

    Josiah-Jordan James grew immensely offensively after a tough first six weeks of the season. James scored 15 or more points just five times in his first two seasons before averaging 10.3 points and reaching the mark six times in his junior season.

    You can’t credit Vescovi and James’ growth solely due to the point guard play but it certainly contributed to their growth.

    How Does Tennessee Handle A Grueling Non Conference Slate?

    We touched on this a bit at the jump discussing how long it took Tennessee to mesh, but the Vols had a solid pre-conference slate.

    The rivalry matchup with Memphis got canceled and Tennessee went 3-3 against the other power six opponents in the non conference slate.

    Tennessee didn’t play great early in the season, but those early season challenges exposed the Vols’ weaknesses and gave them blueprints on how to grow.

    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.