Vols believe in bright future for basketball program

Loyola-Chicago guard Clayton Custer (13) gives chase as Tennessee guard Jordan Bone (0) works toward the basket during the first half of a second-round game at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Dallas, Saturday, March 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

DALLAS - James Daniel won't be around to contribute to it, but he has a vision for the future of Tennessee men's basketball.

"I see these guys back here again and going really deep in the tournament," Daniel said Saturday night at the American Airlines Center, where the third-seeded Volunteers lost their NCAA tournament second-round game against No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago 63-62 in heartbreaking fashion.

Daniel, who joined the Vols as a graduate transfer from Howard University before the 2017-18 season, is out of eligibility after averaging 5.6 points per game in a key role off the bench for Tennessee, which finished 26-9. But Daniel, who was second on the team with 97 assists, is the lone player on this season's roster certain not to return for 2018-19.

The Vols' leading scorers this season, sophomore forward Grant Williams (15.2 points per game) and junior forward Admiral Schofield (13.9), both indicated Saturday night they plan to be back.

"It's not over," said Schofield, who averaged a team-best 6.4 rebounds per game. "We've still got a lot to build on, but you want to go further than this. We haven't been here in a while, so it's good to be able to be back, but we'll be back. We'll be back."

Tennessee will find itself in an unfamiliar position next season, which will be Rick Barnes' fourth as its coach. The Vols were picked to finish either next-to-last or last in the 14-team Southeastern Conference each of his first three seasons in Knoxville. But after surging past expectations by winning a share of the SEC regular season championship and reaching the conference tournament's title game, Tennessee will not be overlooked next fall.

photo Tennessee forward Admiral Schofield (5) celebrates his basket against Loyola-Chicago late in the second half of a second-round game at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Dallas, Saturday, March 17, 2018. Loyola won 63-62. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

"This team, like Admiral said, we've got a lot of guys coming back, all but one," Barnes said. "And they can use it as a catalyst to want to get back here and try to go deeper and further. It can be a good thing."

Some roster questions will have to be addressed over the coming weeks.

The Vols are reportedly still interested in signing a guard. Anfernee Simons, the seventh-ranked player in the 2018 recruiting class according to 247Sports.com, is considering Tennessee and Florida, though he is also eligible to enter the NBA draft. Point guard Tyler Harris from Cordova High School in Memphis also remains uncommitted and is considering Tennessee.

If signed, either player could immediately compete for the minutes Daniel played this season. Another option for the Vols is to allow reserves Chris Darrington and Jalen Johnson to play larger roles.

Transfers have become a regular part of college basketball's offseason cycle, and Tennessee could have players who decide to continue their collegiate careers elsewhere. But the early indications are the team's nucleus will remain intact - and motivated by Saturday's painful defeat.

"We've got a lot of gritty guys," freshman forward Derrick Walker said. "We've got a lot of guys that want to get better and a lot of guys that want to get back here. At the beginning of the season we said we wanted to be here and we did it. Nobody thought we were going to be here, and we're here. So we've just got to find a way to get back."

Daniel said he appreciates the way Tennessee took him in for one season.

"They have an awesome group, an awesome coaching staff and just all the staff that travels with us," Daniel said. "It's some of the hardest-working people I've ever seen."

Contact David Cobb at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @DavidWCobb and on Facebook at facebook.com/volsupdate.