Wiedmer: Vols appear to be SEC basketball's best

Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes directs his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

How highly regarded is this year's University of Tennessee men's basketball team?

The Vols' belated first game of the season is on tap for Tuesday night against Colorado at 6 p.m. (streaming on SEC Network+) in Thompson-Boling Arena, yet UT currently stands 12th in the latest Associated Press poll despite having been forced to cancel its first five games over COVID-19 issues.

Hopefully, as the school's press release for the game noted: "The sixth time is the charm."

But once the Big Orange does begin play, it should quickly become known as the Southeastern Conference's best, light years ahead of the current train wreck known as Kentucky, and at least six to 10 points better than everyone else in the league, save perhaps Florida and Arkansas.

Then again, to quickly glance at that AP poll is to realize that the Vols are also the only SEC team in the Top 25. Yes, once again, the SEC is a football league, or at least viewed as such.

The exception, however, has to be Rick Barnes' Vols, who were justifiably voted the preseason favorites.

Nor is Barnes exactly attempting to tamp down the enthusiasm for a team that was ranked No. 1 nationally for a time two years ago and has begun to haul in Top 10 recruiting classes with regularity.

"I think anytime you go out, you have the chance to do something for your program one way or the other," he said earlier this fall. "We want to be in those games. We will play anybody. It's a challenge, but those are the kind of challenges that you look forward to."

He's about to enter his sixth season on Rocky Top, and all you need to know about the first five is that the Vols have bested Kentucky at least once in each of those seasons, knocking off the Cats twice in both the 2017-18 campaign and the following year, including a Final Four-level SEC tourney semifinal win in 2019.

Throw in the fact that Barnes welcomes back the majority of players from last year, including preseason first-team All-SEC picks John Fulkerson and Yves Pons, and this might finally be the year the Vols reach the Final Four for the first time in school history.

Again, Barnes on his team's multiple strengths: "We think that we've got a chance to guard the ball better than we have in the past. We have some guys that are really good on-ball defenders. We actually, on the other end, have some guys that can create their own shots more than we ever have before."

They also have the one thing that has tended to be prevalent in every NCAA champ over the last four years consecutively and all but two of the last 16 - experience.

Addressing that during one of Kentucky's three straight losses over the last 10 days, ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes observed, "Old wins. Especially this year."

In a year where the coronavirus has already cut at least four games off the previous 31-game regular season schedules - Tennessee, for instance, is now down to 24 contests, including SEC games, and that's assuming COVID-19 doesn't erase a few more - the usual time for perpetual roll-over programs such as UK to become familiar with one another isn't possible.

You're either a cohesive team by mid-December, or early January at the latest, or you risk having too many losses to earn an at-large tourney bid come Selection Sunday.

UT is almost certain to have no such problems. Just a hunch, but the probable starting lineup at this point might include redshirt senior Fulkerson, senior Ponds, sophomores Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James and freshman Jaden Springer with redshirt junior Victor Bailey Jr. - who shot 40 percent from the 3-point line his final season at Oregon - and senior transfer E.J. Anosike coming off the bench.

Throw in big man Uros Plavsic and prep All-American Keon Johnson and you not only have an insanely deep and talented team, but an incredibly experienced one as well. And all that talent doesn't even include 6-8, 219-pound freshman Corey Walker Jr., who could prove to be the steal of this much celebrated freshman class.

"I do think we've got a group of guys that blend well," Barnes said a little over a month ago, before he was hit by COVID-19 and the Vols were forced to cancel game after game for various coronavirus reasons.

"I think our older guys have done a really nice job with the younger guys. I do like the effort and intensity. We have a group of guys that really do like each other. The chemistry is really good."

This is just one of Barnes' many strengths. His teams have few off-court issues. They play hard. They play together. They play smart for the most part.

If they've had a noticeable weakness through the years it's been perimeter defense, especially on the wings. With the additions of Springer and Johnson and the return to full health of James, that should change this year. The Vols should be able to pressure everywhere save Vescovi at the point, and Pons can clean up a lot of messes on the back end with his outrageous shot-blocking skills.

It could still be argued that Florida and LSU may have more starting talent than UT, and Kentucky may get its act together in time to avoid its first losing season since 1989, but no one would seem to have the complete package the Vols will put on the floor night in and night out.

"We have to continue to get there obviously," Barnes said earlier this fall, "but we do think that this is one of the better teams that we've had since we've been here."

Now if the coronavirus will just allow the rest of us to witness that team at work.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.