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Where Tennessee Basketball Lands in the Latest Way-Too-Early Rankings

Tennessee Basketball
Tennessee basketball guard Jahmai Mashack. Photo By Ian Cox/Tennessee Athletics.

The rise of a familiar team from the SEC caused Tennessee to slightly fall back in ESPN’s way-too-early rankings this week.

Tennessee, previously at No. 18 in the rankings, was placed at No. 20 by ESPN’s Jeff Borzello. The Vols fell two spots between the way-too-early rankings.

UCLA and Arkansas are the main culprits for Tennessee’s fall as the Bruins rose from No. 19 to No. 17 while Arkansas leaped from No. 25 to No. 19, one spot above the Vols.

“Dalton Knecht is gone, and with him goes Rick Barnes’ best offense in several years,” Borzello wrote for ESPN. “But if the more up-tempo, 3-point-heavy offensive system remains in Knoxville, there should be plenty of optimism. Zakai Zeigler is one of the best point guards in the country, and Jordan Gainey, Jahmai Mashack and Hofstra transfer Darlinstone Dubar are plenty experienced on the perimeter. Barnes also addressed the frontcourt, adding Igor Milicic Jr. (Charlotte) and Felix Okpara (Ohio State).”

Tennessee finished as the No. 5 team in the nation after an Elite Eight loss to Purdue but immediately was left to deal with the departure of a likely Top 10 NBA Draft pick, two key fifth-year seniors, and two big men who entered the transfer portal. As Borzello mentions, though, Tennessee reloaded through the transfer portal in Barnes’ biggest transfer class that Rick Barnes has assembled in Knoxville.

The Vols prioritized size in the portal with the addition of 6-foot-4 guard Bishop Boswell from the recruiting cycle. Dubar is a versatile wing while Milicic is an impressive stretch four at 6-foot-9. Okpara, meanwhile, is a true center with size at 6-foot-11, 235 pounds.

More from RTI: What Rick Barnes Has Said About Tennessee Basketball’s Transfer Signings

Tennessee’s drop to the back half of the rankings makes sense. The Vols’ 2023 team was loaded with veterans, many of whom had been playing together and building to that final season for a few years. Add in pure shooters Dalton Knecht and Jordan Gainey from the portal and you had yourselves a legitimate second-weekend team. Tennessee did add talent but it’s unknown how everything will mesh together. So it’s fair to drop the Vols back a bit. It is only May, after all.

A day after Borzello released his way-too-early Top 25, the ESPN expert listed Tennessee as a four-seed in his early bracketology picks as the third-highest ranked team from the SEC behind three-seed Auburn and three-seed Alabama. That indicates that Borzello’s mindset might relay that Tennessee is a team that might not have all of their chemistry down early into the season but can come together under Barnes’ leadership by the end of the season.

Tennessee is the sixth team in the SEC behind No. 6 Alabama, No. 11 Texas A&M, No. 12 Auburn, No. 15 Florida, and No. 19 Arkansas but in front of No. 21 Texas.

As John Calipari’s debut roster has come together at Arkansas, the Razorbacks have now inched out early positioning over Tennessee. The Razorbacks are bringing in Tennessee’s Jonas Aidoo, Kentucky’s Adou Thiero, Florida Atlantic’s Johnell Davis, and two Top 26 recruits for their starting lineup.

To see Jeff Borzello’s way-too-early rankings, click here.

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