Tennessee basketball’s 2022-23 season came to a close Thursday night when Florida Atlantic knocked off the Vols in the Sweet 16. The loss marked the end of one of the stranger Tennessee basketball seasons in recent memories.
A sizable portion of Vol fans never truly embraced this team. Whether that was because of football’s success this fall, the ugly style of play Tennessee embraced or the team’s overall inconsistency is unclear. But it led to an odd dichotomy between a veteran team that grew over four years and its fans.
Let’s talk about those veterans and what their legacy will be. Tennessee had five scholarship seniors this season and four of them arrived in Knoxville at the same time. Those four players all have one more year of eligibility and could return to Tennessee but if this is it for their time in Knoxville, how should they be remembered?
Let’s start with the negative. This group of players had flaws and Tennessee’s coaching staff’s inability or unwillingness to adequately address them capped this team’s ceiling. College and Tennessee basketball writer Will Warren wrote a strong piece examining that very point this weekend and titled it “The August Loss.” You should check it out.
None of Tennessee’s seniors could beat defenders off the dribble or score at a consistently high rate. The lack of consistency from Olivier Nkamhoua and Uros Plavsic kept Tennessee’s front court from being strong enough to propel a deep run, and while Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James are good offensive players, they aren’t superstar guards who can consistently take over games.
So, yes, Tennessee wasn’t a perfect team and that was largely in part because its seniors weren’t perfect players. But Tennessee was a good team and that was largely because its seniors were good players who committed to improving and playing the way they need to to maximize their win potential.
My prediction is that in a few years, Santiago Vescovi will be one of the most underrated Vols of the 21st century. The Montevideo, Uruguay native made 281 three-pointers at a 38% rate over his 3.5-year career. Vescovi is the third all-time leading three-point shooter in program history and his junior season was the best three-point shooting season by anyone not named Chris Lofton in Tennessee history.
Vescovi’s ability to shoot the ball from anywhere on the court was special but so was the way he moved without the basketball and worked tirelessly to get a slither of daylight while opponents game planned to take that option away every night. The way Vescovi worked to get into shape was just as special as everything else he did.
An average athlete, Vescovi made himself a really good defender by sheer smarts and effort. The shooting guard never stopped running on either end of the court and left it out on the court every night.
Josiah-Jordan James was Rick Barnes’ first five-star recruit at Tennessee and that burdened him with expectations that were largely unfair. James was not the type of scorer you think of when you think of a five-star recruit.
Barnes said James improved his shot as much as any player he has coached and it was evident. James turned into a good, albeit streaky, shooter. The 6-foot-6 wing struggled to get to and score at the rim which made him reliant on his jump shot which made him an inconsistent offensive player.
However, James was as consistent as can be doing just about everything else. A good passer, an elite rebounder and a tireless defender whose versatility gave Tennessee coaches lineup flexibility any coaching staff would dream of. James also carried Grant Williams’ torch as a true Vol. The Charleston, South Carolina native was a regular at Tennessee sporting events always ready to remind the media that Tennessee is an “everything school.”
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I watched Uros Plavsic play his first season in Knoxville and thought he could never play in the SEC. He proved me wrong. The 7-foot Serbian was far from a perfect player and was frankly maddening at times, but he turned into a capable SEC player.
Lastly there’s Olivier Nkamhoua. Tennessee basketball’s inconsistencies are largely personified in Nkamhoua’s play. The Finland native played early in his career but made marked improvements each year, looking like a star at times his final two seasons.
That stardom never came consistently but it did come in the biggest moment when he scored 23 of his game-high 27 points in the second half of Tennessee’s Round of 32 win over Duke.
Which brings us back to the legacy of this group. Over the last four years, Tennessee’s seniors went 44-27 in SEC play, made three NCAA Tournaments, won the program’s first SEC Tournament since 1979 and brought the program back to the Sweet 16.
Compare that to the group that came before them with players like Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden, Kyle Alexander and Grant Williams. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison because that group was in two different classes and started with Tennessee near the bottom of the SEC.
But they went 42-30 (or 36-18 for Bone and Williams) in SEC play, made two NCAA Tournaments, won the SEC regular season title in 2018 and brought the program back to the Sweet 16.
Tennessee’s current seniors probably would have told you they wanted to elevate the Vols’ program to a new level when they arrived in Knoxville. They didn’t do that but they did maintain the program on the footing that it was.
Tennessee is a good basketball program and that is in large part due to this senior class. The Vols are one of the top programs in the SEC— a now strong basketball conference with good coaches.
Losing to Florida Atlantic and not making it to the program’s second Elite Eight is a missed opportunity and always will be. The Owls are a good team but they weren’t unbeatable and Tennessee led for the game’s first 25 minutes. Losing that game kept this group from becoming Tennessee legends, but they were good players who accomplished a lot in their time in Knoxville.
That shouldn’t be glossed over or forgotten.
Heck, this group could all decide to run it back and make this piece look silly but it feels like a time of change inside the Tennessee basketball program. Barnes now enters perhaps the most crucial offseason of his Tennessee tenure. More on that tomorrow at RockyTopInsider.com.