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Rick Barnes Talks Offseason Opportunity for Freshman Players

Rick Barnes
Photo via Tennessee Athletics

After just the second trip to the Elite Eight in program history, the Tennessee Volunteers roster will look significantly different next season.

Tennessee lost three seniors in Dalton Knecht, Josiah-Jordan James, and Santiago Vescovi through graduation and has seen four players enter the transfer portal so far: Jonas Aidoo, Tobe Awaka, Freddie Dilione, and D.J. Jefferson.

“Well, you think about it, we’re losing really four starters,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said on Thursday. “Three of them to graduation and one into the portal. And we feel that. As much as we know we’re going to have to do that, we also know that we’ve got young players, we’ve got confidence in them. We want those guys to continue to grow and be a major part of what we do going forward.”

Zakai Zeigler and Jahmai Mashack are set to return as Tennessee’s seniors leading the way with Jordan Gainey in his second year with the program. Tennessee is also continuing to work the transfer portal, so far signing former Hofstra wing Darlinstone Dubar. But behind that, as Barnes mentioned, the Vols will be relying on their younger talent.

Barnes looks at the turnover as an “opportunity,” though, saying that every season is a new team despite the returning production.

Two of the players who will have a good look at that opportunity are second-year guard Cam Carr and forward Cade Phillips.

While speaking with the media about Carr on Thursday, Barnes revealed that he would ask his freshman players what they learned after each game whether they played in the game or not.

You don’t have to do something every time you get the ball, Barnes said about Phillips’ response.

The game is so much harder than you’d think, Barnes relayed of Carr’s comments.

“But I’ve watched him elevate his play all through the season,” Barnes said of Carr’s freshman campaign. “I’ve watched all of them do that. And again, we’re excited about those guys and we think that those are the guys that we know are gonna make giant steps forward because of what they went through this year, what they got to see up close and personal, the physicality of it.”

More from RTI: Kentucky Reportedly in Contact With Former Tennessee Forward Jonas Aidoo

Barnes says that the work that Carr and Phillips put in throughout the season and now in the offseason is exactly where both players need to be. But while Tennessee’s freshmen have the experience of seeing the ups and downs of a season firsthand – which is a good thing, certainly – there’s now another layer of toughness and grit set to be uncovered when they move into a more productive role.

“Once you get into the tournament, the league play, the intensity on every possession, all that. It’s something that you can talk about it to everybody but until they actually are a part of it and see it, I’m not sure they understand it until they go through it,” Barnes said. “And that’s where these younger guys understand what they’re really now getting into.”

Tennessee will stretch in different directions to put the 2024-2025 team together, using returning pieces and players from the transfer portal alike. But with so many upperclassmen leaving Tennessee’s program, the Vols will turn to younger talent like Cam Carr and Cade Phillips for increased roles next season. And that’s where the fun begins.

“So every year the excitement of putting together a team and putting the parts together is, honestly, it’s fun. It really is. So we’re looking forward to continuing to build this roster,” Barnes said.

To see Rick Barnes’ full comment on Carr and Phillips, check out the video below. Stay tuned to Rocky Top Insider throughout the offseason for more Tennessee basketball coverage.

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