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Five Tennessee Basketball Questions As Preseason Practice Begins

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Tennessee basketball begins preseason practice today with its season opener against Tennessee Tech just under six weeks away.

The Vols are coming off a strong 27-8 (14-4 SEC) season that saw the Big Orange finish second in the SEC regular season race before winning the SEC Tournament and falling to Michigan in the Round of 32.

Rick Barnes’ eighth Tennessee team returns an abundance of key contributors from last season’s team including seniors Santiago Vescovi and Josiah Jordan James as well sophomore Zakai Zeigler. The Vols added a four-man recruiting class highlighted by five-star Julian Phillips. Tennessee also landed Indian State transfer Tyreke Key.

Here’s five questions facing Tennessee basketball at the beginning of preseason practice.

Who Is Tennessee’s Second Point Guard?

Tennessee was better than every team in the SEC at point guard a season ago. Kennedy Chandler lived up his five-star billing to become one of the best players in the conference. Behind Chandler, freshman point guard Zakai Zeigler charged onto the scene to become a tremendous spark plug off the bench.

Playing together at the same time, Chandler and Zeigler were pure electricity to watch.

Chandler is off to the NBA and Zeigler wants to continue coming off the bench this season. Where does that leave Tennessee’s point guard room?

Even if Zeigler continues to come off the bench, the now-sophomore will play more minutes at point guard than any other player. If his freshman season was any indication, Zeigler can more than handle the load of playing extensive minutes at point guard.

But who else can handle the basketball?

Santiago Vescovi played extensively at point guard his first two seasons at Tennessee but showed how much better he was off the ball last season, finishing second on the team with 13.3 points per game while shooting 40% from three-point range.

Indiana State transfer Tyreke Key spent most his days in Terre Haute, Indiana playing off the ball, but the 6-foot-3 guard could burden some of the point guard load.

Lastly, freshman B.J. Edwards is looking to come in and make an impact immediately. The four-star ranked as a point guard coming out of Knoxville Catholic High School but Edwards is likely more of a combo guard who plays both on-and-off the ball.

Zeigler gives Barnes one really strong point guard option. Behind him are a handful of capable players who haven’t yet shined at point guard. Who emerges as the second option is worth watching as the season draws closer.

Does Tennessee Have More Interior Scoring?

Rick Barnes sat at the podium in Bankers Fieldhouse discussing the need for more interior scoring after the Vols’ season ended at the hands of a tight loss to Michigan in the Round of 32.

The 68-year old coach had leaned into a new offensive identity at the start of his 35th season as a head coach. With a heavy guard personnel, the Vols shot an abundance of three-pointers in the 2021-22 season. The move paid dividends for the vast majority of the season but Tennessee couldn’t hit water from a boat against the Wolverines, making just two-of-18 triples.

That led to Barnes’ observation about the Vols lack of interior scoring to bail them out when three-pointers wouldn’t fall.

So what are the 2022-23 Vols’ interior scoring prospects?

Much of the front court is the same as a season ago. The Vols will get Olivier Nkamhoua back from the injury that sidelined him the last month of the season. Uros Plavsic and Jonas Aidoo are both back as well.

The trio combined for just 14.9 points per game a season ago and with Plavsic and Nkahmoua both entering their senior seasons, Aidoo is the only one in a typical spot to make a major jump.

6-foot-8 forward Julian Phillips is perhaps the Vols’ most anticipated newcomer but the five-star freshman has a guard’s skillset. That’s not to say Phillips can’t score at the basket but the South Carolina native doesn’t bring a back to the basket skillset to Knoxville.

However, the front court isn’t the only place to get interior scoring. Zeigler flashed ability to score at the basket as a freshman and James has the capabilities to be physical finisher.

More From RTI: Tennessee Football Boasts Nation’s Top Offense

Will The Defense Take A Step Back?

In this piece last season, I pondered how big of a step back Tennessee’s defense would take after losing wing defenders Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer as well as former SEC Defensive Player of the Year Yves Pons.

They didn’t take a step back. They only got better.

Tennessee went from fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom to third. It was an extremely impressive feat that was incredibly important to the Vols’ success.

I’ve learned my lesson and am simply asking whether the defense will take a step back. The challenge is different this season too.

Chandler was a solid defender but the best defenders on this Tennessee team are back. Zeigler landed on the All SEC Defensive Team while James — one of the league’s most versatile defenders — was a glaring emission from that group.

Vescovi made major improvements as a defender in his junior season and the Vols’ rim protection has the potential to be much better with Aidoo entering his sophomore season and Nkamhoua returning from injury.

Tennessee’s defensive loss came in the coaching staff as associate head coach Mike Schwartz left to become East Carolina’s head coach. Schwartz was the Vols’ “defensive coordinator” and was a major piece to their defensive success.

Still, Barnes coached eight top 25 defenses in the 19 years of KenPom before he arrived in Knoxville, and as already stated, this roster has all the pieces to be great defensively.

Maybe Tennessee isn’t the third best defense in the country again this season, but my hunch is that the Vols will be extremely good defensively again this year.

What Does Tyreke Key Bring Tennessee?

Tyreke Key hasn’t played a college basketball game in 18 months. The 6-foot-3 guard missed the entirety of the the 2021-22 season with an injury before transferring to Tennessee for his final season of college basketball.

Key is a sixth year senior and a former Missouri Valley Conference First Team selection. The Celina, Tennessee native was a phenomenal scorer for the Cyclones, averaging over 15 points per game in each of his final three seasons at Indiana State.

A complete and experienced guard that has averaged over 17 points per game twice in his career has massive potential at any level. Still, how Key will adjust to life in the SEC is a question— especially since he hasn’t played in 18 months.

Then there’s the dramatic difference in Key’s three-point shooting. The former Clay County standout shot 45% from three on 96 attempts as a sophomore, 39% on 144 attempts as a junior before a massive drop to 31% on 98 attempts as a senior.

What quality of three-point shooter does Tennessee get this season?

There’s plenty of questions around the high upside transfer. He’s one worth watching entering the season.

How Pivotal Will Loss Of Chandler Be?

Tennessee has all the pieces to be a really good basketball team. The Vols return over 55% of their scoring from a season ago, strong interior and perimeter pieces and proven senior leaders.

We’ve looked at what I view as the major questions but could Kennedy Chandler’s departure hurt more than I and most expect?

While Chandler’s lone season in Knoxville was a learning experience and included great growth from start-to-finish, the now Grizzlies’ point guard was the Vols’ best offensive player by the end of the season.

Chandler accounted for 20% of Tennessee’s scoring, 30% of Tennessee’s assists and 24% of Tennessee’s steals a season ago.

The freshman was the guy Tennessee turned to when it needed a basket and made all of his teammates better when he was on the court.

While this Tennessee team has all the pieces to overcome Chandler’s departure, sometimes losing a player that affects everyone on the court like Chandler is more consequential than expected.

We won’t learn this answer until the Vols’ get tested on the hardwood, and I think Tennessee has the pieces to replace Chandler’s production, but it is a question worth monitoring.

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