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ESPN Is All Aboard The Tennessee Basketball Bandwagon

Rick Barnes
Tennessee HC Rick Barnes at the 2022 SEC Basketball Tournament. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Expectations are consistently high for Tennessee basketball this season. The Vols are a preseason top 10 team in both the USA Today Coaches and AP Polls. The SEC’s media picked Tennessee to win the conference ahead of a season where the SEC is supposed to be as tough and deep as ever.

All those preseason expectations are high, but none of them are as high on Rick Barnes’ ninth Tennessee team as ESPN’s cast of college basketball personalities are. Three of ESPN’s four lead college basketball gurus picked Tennessee to make the Final Four this season.

John Gasaway, Joe Lunardi and Jeff Borzello all predict Tennessee to make its first Final Four in program history with Borzello and Lunardi both predicting Barnes to be the national coach of the year.

Lunardi, ESPN’s bracketology guru, pegged Tennessee as the most interesting team in college basketball this season as they look to merge returning talent with a number of highly touted newcomers and finally get over the hump in the NCAA Tournament.

“Tennessee belongs in the best-golfer-never-to-win-a-major category,” Lunardi wrote. “The Vols might be the biggest athletic department never to reach a Final Four. In men’s basketball that is. Rick Barnes has been consistently excellent since arriving in Knoxville, but unable to get past the Sweet 16, despite multiple top 10 teams on KenPom. This could (should?) be the year that changes.”

The quartet of ESPN writers aren’t the World Wide Leader in Sports’ only college basketball personalities that are high on the Vols. Seth Greenberg was high on Tennessee after watching them practice this preseason and he bolstered his prediction to a new level during halftime of Baylor’s win over Auburn last night.

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Asked for his prediction to cut down the nets at State Farm Stadium in Phoenix on the first Monday in April, Greenberg was seeing orange.

“I’m going to go outside the box,” Greenberg said. “I think a team that’s struggled in the NCAA Tournament but I think has a chance is Tennessee. Dalton Knecht improves them offensively. Jordan Gainey (is) another guy on the perimeter that knocks down jump shots. They have a really deep, physical, mature backcourt. … They have great depth, they’re playing with much better flow in transition, they have more shot makers, you know they’re going to defend. I think Tennessee makes a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.”

Tennessee is 1-0 after defeating Tennessee Tech 82-40 in its season opener on Monday night. Much of the hype surrounding the Vols is due to their strong preseason which saw them defeat No. 4 Michigan State at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

Legendary Spartans’ coach Tom Izzo did nothing to temper expectations for his old coaching friend Rick Barnes after the game.

“I think since he (Barnes) is a good friend of mine, let’s put pressure on him: That is a Final Four team,” Izzo said. “I really believe that. I really do.”

Tennessee faces its first true test of the 2023-24 season this Friday when they travel to Madison to battle Wisconsin at the Kohl Center.

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