As Tennessee basketball prepares for its third season under head coach Rick Barnes, the Vols were selected by members of the media to finish 13th in the SEC. After a successful second season on Rocky Top, will Barnes surpass expectations for a third-straight season? Ben McKee and Caleb Souders are here to discuss.
Souders: This is absolute disrespect to the basketball program and Rick Barnes. This is a team that returns four starters from last season, after only losing Robert Hubbs and Lew Evans due to graduation — and Shembari Phillips due to transfer. This is certainly a year in which Rick Barnes puts the excuses behind him and shows what he can do, as he has brought in a solid 2017 recruiting class — through both transfers and 2017 class commitments.
McKee: I was stunned when the SEC media picks came out late last week, and Tennessee was picked to finish second-to-last in the league. The fact that the Vols were picked to finish 13th points to a lack of respect for Barnes, and that the media is paying minimal attention to what the third-year head coach is building in Knoxville. Will the Vols win any form of championship in 2017-18? Probably not, but I would bet my mortgage that Tennessee finishes well above 13th.
As Caleb mentioned, Hubbs, Evans and Phillips have moved on, but those aren’t departures that will hamper this year’s team. Tennessee has the talent to make a statement in the league this year, and it all starts with the smash brothers – Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. The two combined to average 20.8 points-per-game last season while hauling in 10.3 rebounds.
Williams and Schofield aren’t the only dynamic duo returning, as the Vols return two very talented, but young, point guards. The system Barnes runs requires a point guard that can flat out get the job done, and be the leader of the team. Sophomore Jordan Bone and redshirt sophomore Lamonte Turner can be exactly that. As freshman last season, Bone and Turner showed flashes of greatness, but need to be more consistent. If the two can flourish this season, Tennessee will have the ability to beat anybody in the country.
Souders: There are no more excuses for Barnes after this season, especially after bringing in two experienced scoring guards in Chris Darrington and grad-transfer James Daniel III. Darrington averaged 20.7 points per game last season in JUCO, and Daniel III can straight up get to the rack. Daniel III had a game in 2016 against Coppin State in which he made 17 free throws.
McKee: I agree with Caleb, as I believe the additions of Darrington and Daniel III will be huge for this team. As young as this team still is, the two veterans will provide much needed experience.
However, the two biggest additions to the 2017-18 Tennessee basketball team are two guys who are already in the program. That being redshirt freshmen John Fulkerson and Jalen Johnson. At the start of last season, Fulkerson was the heart-and-soul of the team. The East Tennessee native isn’t extremely athletic or freakishly strong, he just has ‘it.’ Pairing Fulkerson with Williams and Schofield will provide nightmares for opposing coaches.
Johnson redshirted a year ago, as he looked to add on some muscle. While he wasn’t on the court last season, many around the program believed that the forward was the most athletic player on the team. The Vols are set at guard with Bone, Turner and Jordan Bowden, as well as at forward with Fulkerson, Schofield and Williams. But the Vols need help on the wing, and Johnson can provide just that. The North Carolina native will provide sparkling dunks, but if he can find a rhythm from three and improve as a defender, Johnson will be a dangerous weapon for Barnes.
Souders: Tennessee has needed a scoring combo-guard the past couple seasons, and not only will they receive scoring in Daniel III and Darrington, but they get experience and defense. These two have played a lot of games, so the stage won’t be too big for them.
Daniel III once recorded nine steals in a single game in ‘15. As a sophomore at Vincennes junior college, Darrington led his team to a 32-3 record. Look forward to Daniel III and Darrington both having huge seasons and leading the Vols this year. Moving to the most exciting player of the 2017 class, Yves Pons leads the way
McKee: Speaking of Pons, let’s take a minute to talk about the France native. As I mentioned earlier, Tennessee needs help out on the perimeter. Like Johnson, Pons can provide exactly that. The two’s playing style are very similar. They’ll both provide plenty of highlight-reel dunks, but defense and the ability to knock down shots remain a question mark.
Pons is an athletic freak who at 6-foot-5 brings the crowd to their feet. His lateral quickness and absurd wingspan allow him the potential to be a lockdown defender. When the season tips off, Pons will be the first-ever Tennessee men’s basketball player from France, and just the eighth ever international player.
The roster has several playmakers and with Barnes leading the way, the Vols should far exceed expectations. If I’ve learned one thing about Barnes over the course of his first two-years in Knoxville, it’s to not doubt the veteran head coach.
Photo By Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics