College basketball doesn’t tip off for months, but every team in the nation is already thinking about the leaders they will miss and the prospects they have to put their hope in when November rolls around.
In head coach Rick Barnes’ second season on Rocky Top, the Tennessee basketball program looks to start the next chapter of its transition. By now, the roster is nearly all comprised of players recruited by Barnes and his leadership of the program is now in full swing.
Last season, led by four seniors, the Volunteers finished 12th in the Southeastern Conference with a 15-19 record (6-12 SEC). While the team is obviously looking to improve from last year’s campaign, they will have to do so without several key pieces.
Kevin Punter Jr., Guard
Punter was, without question, both the floor general and the most talented player on last year’s squad. After arriving on Rocky Top as a junior college transfer two years ago, the senior guard from the Bronx, New York, led the team in scoring with 22.2 points per game, good enough for second in the SEC and 12th nationally. He was also the Vols’ only All-SEC selection (second team).
Although Punter missed the final eight games of the season due to injury, he finished with 905 points in his two years at UT — a school record for a two-year player.
After graduating from the university, Punter went undrafted and played with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA Summer League. Unable to find a spot on a NBA roster, he has since gone the international route, signing with Laviro Basketball Club in Greece.
Armani Moore, Forward
Alongside Punter, Armani Moore was an anchor for Tennessee’s 2015-2016 campaign. A true do-it-all player for the Vols last season, Moore averaged an impressive 12.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.6 blocks per game his senior year. Moore played at virtually every position on the hardwood for Tennessee during his time on Rocky Top.
As a four-year player at Tennessee, the forward led the team’s surprise conference tournament run in Nashville at the close of his college career. Without Punter in March, Moore created some madness of his own, averaging 14 points, five rebounds and five assists on the way to an appearance in the tournament quarterfinals.
Like Punter, Moore got a chance with an NBA team (the Indiana Pacers) during the Summer League, but has gone overseas to play in Poland for Stelmet Basketball Club.
Devon Baulkman, Guard
Baulkman found his place last season as a three-point specialist for the Vols, knocking down 62 long-range bombs (finishing with an efficient .346 three-point percentage during his career at UT). He’s not a big-name shooter, but he was a reliable option for Barnes and the Volunteers last season.
Replacing the three-point production from both Punter and Baulkman will make for quite a challenge for the Vols this season.
While Tennessee will move on into the 2016-2017 season without those key pieces, the program welcomes in eight new Vols. These new arrivals include six new freshmen, a graduate transfer and a redshirt freshman now eligible to compete.
Here are Tennessee’s top additions for this season:
Lamonte Turner, RS Freshman Guard
He was on the sideline for home games and practiced with the team, but Lamonte Turner was ruled academically ineligible for the 2015-2016 season. Now a redshirt freshman, Turner is poised to be the point guard that the Volunteers so desperately needed last season.
With Kevin Punter, Armani Moore and freshman Shembari Phillips having to operate outside of their comfort zone running the offense last season, the Vols struggled without a true floor general.
Aside from just on-court production and talent, Turner will also show leadership among the newcomers. Unlike the rest of the first-year Vols, Turner has been around for a year and knows coach Barnes’ expectations and system. Now that Turner has traded his mesh practice jersey for a real, stitched No. 1, he’s ready to hit the court for the Vols.
Lew Evans, Graduate Transfer Forward
Even if you didn’t know anything about Evans, this quote from coach Rick Barnes should have you excited about his contribution to the team: “I’m excited because with only two other upperclassmen on our roster, Lew will bring some much-needed experience next year,” Barnes said. “He also adds a level of toughness to our frontcourt, along with a versatile skill set. His makeup is exactly what we need with this team.”
Evans, a 6-foot-7 graduate transfer from Utah State University, joins guard Robert Hubbs III as the only senior on this team. Last season Evans averaged 8.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, shooting 41 percent from the field, 35.6 percent from three and 71 percent from the free throw line for the Aggies.
On his own game, Evans said, “I play hard. I’m a big man that can step out and shoot it, and I’m going to give 110 percent every night I’m out on the floor.”
Barring sophomore Kyle Alexander, Evans is the only real big man the Vols have to compete in the paint. And Evans is much more experienced and developed as a big man than anyone else Tennessee has available this season.
This is Barnes’ first solid class, coming in as the 49th best in the country and 7th in the SEC. While it’s nowhere near elite, it fills the holes in Tennessee’s depth and addresses struggles at the point guard and post positions.
Small forward Jalen Johnson is the top-ranked recruit in the Vols’ 2016 class, becoming Tennessee’s first high school signee from North Carolina since Rashard Lee in 1995. 247Sports had Johnson ranked fourth in the blue chip state for basketball recruiting.
Even though Johnson was the first Carolina native to sign with the Vols in over two decades, his high school teammate Kwe Parker, ranked 5th in the state, quickly joined him. A 6-foot-2 guard, Parker is one of the more dynamic athletes Tennessee basketball has landed. He’s not a pure, polished guard ready to lead a team, but he is a highlight reel machine (his “Hoopmixtape” on Youtube is an electric sight to behold). Regardless of how large his role is on the court this year, he will most definitely make Thompson-Boling erupt when he finds the open rim on a break, or just as likely finds it over a defender.
Barnes will look to the experienced few to lead this squad, but the new crop of players have an opportunity to make a quick impact in their first year on Rocky Top.
Edited by Nathan Odom
Featured image by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics