Tennessee men’s basketball season preview

 

[title_box title=”Tennessee men’s basketball season preview”]

The 2015-16 college basketball season is upon us. On Rocky Top, this season marks the beginning of a new era – the Rick Barnes era.

After just one season at UT, former head coach Donnie Tyndall was fired due to an NCAA investigation of violations he and his staff committed at Southern Miss. In need of a new leader for a program in another huge transition, Director of Athletics Dave Hart looked to the most experienced, available coach on the market.

Barnes was brought in this spring after a 17-year tenure at Texas, which included a Final Four appearance in 2003. Barnes brings the magic word that Tennessee’s basketball program has been desperately searching for – stability.

On their third head coach in three seasons, the Volunteers are looking to make an impact in the revamped SEC.

The Vols not only start this season with a new coach, but also without star player Josh Richardson. Richardson did it all last season, leading the Volunteers in scoring, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, assists, steals and minutes played. But aside from graduating Richardson to the NBA, the Vols return the majority of their rotation from last season.

This year’s squad includes four seniors: Armani Moore, Kevin Punter, Devon Baulkman and Derek Reese. Tennessee also brings back junior guard Robert Hubbs III, who started 20 games last season, and sophomore guard Detrick Mostella, who contributed 3.4 points per game.

The newcomers for the Volunteers are freshmen Kyle Alexander, Admiral Schofield, Shembari Phillips, and Lamonte Turner (ineligible for the season) and junior college transfer forward Ray Kasongo (eligibility in question due to lingering issues).

But compared to the rest of the SEC, the Volunteers are slightly out-manned. This is reflected in the preseason coaches poll, where Tennessee is slated to finish No. 12 in the conference. The Vols’ new coach does not buy into the low predictions. “I’ve gotten to the tournament with teams that have less talent and less skill than this team,” said Barnes.

In a rare occurrence, the hailed football conference features three preseason top 25 teams: No. 2 Kentucky, No. 18 Vanderbilt and No. 21 LSU. Plus, the remainder of the conference features much more talent and potential than usual.

In a strong league, Tennessee is predicted to struggle to win games and stay relevant. But with a fresh slate and a new look, the Volunteers and their new coach are looking to overcome expectations. Barnes’ goal for this team is the NCAA tournament.

In its first scrimmage this preseason, “Tennessee edged out Davidson,” according to ESPN basketball insider Jeff Goodman. Moore led the team with 30 points and 14 rebounds, with Kevin Punter adding 27. Even though this was a casual, “secret” scrimmage, Tennessee showed promise in its first organized competition. Davidson was a No. 10 seed in last season’s NCAA tournament.

Barnes and the Volunteers debuted their new-look, up-tempo offense to the public eye last Friday night at Thompson-Boling Arena in their first and only official exhibition game. In the Vols’ matchup with Alabama-Huntsville, they soundly beat the Chargers, 96-83.

Barnes’ up-tempo style showed its effectiveness, as the Vols did not score more than 78 points the entire 2014-2015 season.

In the Volunteers’ first game, the dynamic duo of seniors Moore and Punter shined bright. Moore led the team with a double-double, scoring 29 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. The senior forward shot 10-of-19 from the field and 4-of-6 from three point range; an addition to his game that he has worked on throughout the offseason. Punter was close behind, adding 25 points and five assists for the Volunteers in his debut at the point guard position.

So far for Tennessee, the two players that Barnes predicted to lead the way for the Vols have not disappointed.

In his postgame comments, Barnes said, “We know that we are going to play a lot through Kevin [Punter] and Armani [Moore].”

Throughout the season, the Volunteers will continue to look to Moore and Punter for not only on-court production, but also leadership.

On the style that he wants this team to play, Barnes said, “We want the tempo… But our defense really hurt us. You can’t really get out and run.”

Tennessee has fast, athletic players that can score in transition and suit Barnes’ up-tempo style, but if they struggle on defense, the Vols will struggle to be able to maintain their brand of basketball and compete in league play.

Even though this new style is a change for the Vols, players are welcoming it. “It’s definitely a change, but I’m used to change,” Punter said. “When a coach wants to win, he raises the bar so high, I’m always with that and want to buy in to where he wants the team to get to.”

Moore also commented on the new system. “For us to run the system, we have to be in really good shape. It will keep the defense on its heels and they can never relax.” He added, “If we can take good shots and hit good shots, then the defense will have to compete with us, rather than us having to compete with them.”

The Vols’ new strategy relies on strong defense and the ability to run, score in transition and score a lot of points. This has always been the winning formula for Barnes.

Tennessee will be looking to win games this year with a totally brand new look: new uniforms, new coaching staff, new playing style and a new court.

The Vols officially start the Barnes era Friday night at Thompson-Boling Arena, when they host UNC-Asheville at 7 p.m. ET.

Featured image by Ryan McGill

Edited by Cody McClure

Takeaways from Tennessee’s exhibition win against Alabama-Huntsville

[title_box title=”Takeaways from Tennessee’s exhibition win against Alabama-Huntsville”]

While Tennessee’s men’s basketball team beat the University of Alabama-Huntsville Friday night, 96-83, new head coach Rick Barnes says that there will not be an easy game for his team this season.

Here are my takeaways from Tennessee’s exhibition game against UAH.

Offense

The ball movement looked great. You could tell Barnes put an emphasis on spreading the defense out and always being ready to hit the cutter or the man on the perimeter with a good pass.

Photo by Cody McClure
Photo by Cody McClure

Tennessee also took and made great jump shots and controlled the tempo all game on both sides of the ball. The Vols shot 50 percent from the field in the first half and 45 percent from deep. Tennessee was by no means even close to a three-point shooting team last year, but it made 10 three-pointers in just the first half. Armani Moore contributed three of them.

“Armani has been shooting better than 45 percent from deep in practice,” said Robert Hubbs III. “He really has improved.”

Yeah Robert, I would agree with that. Moore made just six three-pointers in all of last year. He had 20 points at halftime and Kevin Punter had 18.

Hubbs had been dealing with some nagging injuries, but came off the bench and looked great, scoring from inside the paint and beyond the perimeter as well. He had 11 points at halftime and was a perfect 3-3 from beyond the arc. If he can hit multiple three-pointers a game, it would be huge for this offense. Tennessee needs a good player who can shoot the deep ball and spread the floor for Punter and Moore to attack the basket. Hubbs’ play really deteriorated as the night went on though. He air-balled a shot in the second half and then later hit the side of the backboard when attempting a corner three. He finished with 15 points.

Something that scared me tonight was watching Tennessee play when their leaders, Punter and Moore, were on the bench. Late in the second half when both were taking a breather, UAH went on a small run that cut into Tennessee’s lead, which showed how important these two guys are to this team on both sides of the floor. Both are top defenders for the Vols and they combined to score 56 percent of Tennessee’s total points tonight (Moore with 29 and Punter with 25). As a fan, you have to be scared if one of these guys gets into foul trouble during a game. How can this Vols team pull out a win if it is facing a formidable opponent and has to play without one of its top guys?

Another thing that scared me/I didn’t understand was Derek Reese’s performance. He only scored one basket and it came late in the second half with only five minutes remaining in the game. He did record eight rebounds, but as Tennessee’s extremely undersized center, you’re going to be expected to do a little more than that. Even Barnes commented on it after the game saying, “Reese really has to compete harder down low.”

Defense

Photo by Jordan Dajani
Photo by Jordan Dajani

Barnes used mostly man-to-man tonight. The defense did a really good job on the perimeter, but was very spotty in the post. The defense over-helped on almost every play, looking for that big block that would send the crowd into a frenzy. The interior defense also let undersized guards sneak in quite a few times for some easy layups. Along with all of this, I’m just not comfortable with the fact that Alabama-Huntsville dropped 83 points on Tennessee’s defense.

Newcomers

We didn’t get as much time as I wanted to see the freshmen play, but I was still able to come away with some thoughts about the new guys. Ray Kasongo seems like a really tough player who, in only three minutes tonight, showed that he will fight down low. He’s going to have to work on not fouling though, as he had a couple of push-offs in the first half.

Freshman Admiral Schofield played 11 minutes tonight, yet failed to score. You can tell that he’s a hard worker and gives big-time effort on both sides of the court. He could develop into something special.

Freshman Kyle Alexander played 10 minutes tonight and scored four points and grabbed five rebounds. I hope he is going to mature quickly, because he’s the tallest player on the team at 6’9″ and I’m not confident in Reese’s play down low. He may be forced to play some big minutes this season.

Freshman Shembari Phillips did not play tonight because he was late to tonight’s shootaround according to coach Barnes. Really? How can you be late to your first collegiate game? So yeah, this kid has not started off on the right foot with fans and Barnes.

Tennessee will take on UNC-Asheville in its season opener on Friday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. ET in Thompson-Boling Arena.

Edited by Cody McClure

Vols in the Pros: Josh Richardson

The Miami Heat got a steal with their second round draft pick this year in former Tennessee point guard Josh Richardson. Although he has only played in preseason and summer league games, Richardson looks to already be making some noise down at South Beach.

During Richardson’s first two years at Tennessee, he mainly played as a defensive specialist, helping to lock down perimeter shooters. He saw action in every game both as a freshman and as a sophomore, starting nine games his first year on Rocky Top and all 33 his sophomore year.

Richardson’s junior year, however, is when he really started emerging as a star. In a game against Missouri, he held the Southeastern Conference’s leading scorer at the time, Jabari Brown, to only eight points on 1-of-10 shooting on the night. It is also worth noting that the one field goal Brown did make that night was when Richardson was not on the floor.

Richardson really started getting the recognition he deserved at the NCAA Tournament. Surprisingly, the Vols made a push into the Sweet 16 after entering the tournament as an 11 seed. In the first game against Iowa, after not scoring in the first half, he went off for 17 points in the second half and finished with eight rebounds as well. Against Mercer, he scored a career high 26 points to help push the Vols into the third round of the Tournament. In Tennessee’s four NCAA Tournament games, he led the team in field-goal percentage (.617) and assists per game (3.0) as well as ranking second in points per game (19.3).

Entering his senior year, many people questioned who the point guard for Tennessee would be. Head Coach Cuonzo Martin left the Vols to take the job as head coach at the University of California-Berkley. With the big three of Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes, and Jeronne Maymon all graduating and a large roster turnover with the coaching change, Richardson was left to lead a very young team in a very competitive Southeastern Conference.

In the season opener against the then No. 15 ranked VCU Rams, Richardson made his first start at point guard. Continuing with his defensive background, he held preseason All-American Treveon Graham to a mere 3-of-13 shooting. While Tennessee’s season was not what he or many others hoped it would have been, he did manage to average an impressive 16 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 2.1 steals per game. He ended the year with some serious recognition as well, garnering First Team All-SEC selections in both in the Coaches and the AP poll as well as being selected for the SEC All-Defensive team and the SEC Community Service Team. He finished his career ranked third in school history in games played (136), ninth in minutes played (3,802) and games started (110), 10th in steals (147), 16th in blocked shots (88), and 28th in scoring (1,252).

Going into the NBA Draft, many people though Richardson could be a late first-round pick. Some also thought he could even creep higher into the first-round with his talent and the amount of upside he possessed at the point guard spot. However, not many people outside of the conference knew much about him. As the draft entered the second round, Richardson’s name had still not been called.

All that changed, however, when the Miami Heat decided to use their second-round pick on him. As the 40th overall pick, Miami did what Richardson did 147 times in college — got a steal.

In his first appearances as a pro, Richardson helped lead the Heat to an undefeated record in the Orlando Pro Summer League. In the final game of the league, he had a personal best 18 points, two rebounds, and two assists in a 91-68 win over the Detroit Pistons.

In late July, Richardson signed a contract with the Miami Heat. The three-year contract is worth about $2.5 million, with the first year fully guaranteed.

Richardson has played in six NBA preseason games. He earned his first start against the Orlando Magic. During the 95-92 loss, Richardson scored 18 points and had three steals.

It is not known how much playing time Richardson will see this season with the Heat. With star players like Mario Chalmers, Goran Dragic, Dwayne Wade, Gerald Green and Tyler Johnson, Richardson may end up playing in the NBA D-League for some time before getting his shot at the big-time. However, with the noise the rookie has already been making, watch out for him in Miami for years to come.