This story was updated March 26, 2018, at 10:32 p.m.
KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee basketball team that won a regular-season conference title and made the program's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2014 loses just one player to graduation.
But in a sport rife with transferring, coach Rick Barnes knows his squad will not be immune.
"There's always the possibility somebody can leave," Barnes said Monday. "You look at the team coming back. They're going to look at the guys they're going to have to compete with."
After falling to Loyola-Chicago in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Barnes and his staff have started the process of meeting individually with every player on the roster. Last year guards Shembari Phillips and Kwe Parker elected to transfer, which opened up scholarships for James Daniel and Chris Darrington.
Daniel, a graduate transfer, carved out a key role off the bench for the Volunteers in 2017-18 as the lone senior on the roster. Darrington fell out of the playing rotation during the Southeastern Conference schedule.
The 6-foot-1 Darrington will be a senior for the 2018-19 season. Barnes said it's "never too late" for a player to establish a role, though playing time figures to be just as difficult to earn in Tennessee's backcourt next season as the coaches continue pursuing guards in the recruiting process.
"Is he willing to embrace that and compete every day at the level he's going to have to play at this level and to play in this program?" Barnes said of Darrington. "That will determine his future."
Darrington impressed Barnes with a strong showing in Tennessee's three games in Europe last summer without its full roster.facebook
"Once we got back here, everybody starts out at a certain level," Barnes said. "Each day it keeps going up and up and up in terms of the competition and the commitment that it takes. He wasn't able to raise his level of competition the way he needed to, and the passion that it takes every day. Is he a good enough player? He's a good enough player. But it takes more than talent."
Barnes reiterated Monday that Tennessee is hunting for a guard in the 2018 recruiting class. Top target Anfernee Simons has declared for the NBA draft, leaving Memphis-area prospect Tyler Harris and California prospect James Akinjo as the Vols' top targets, according to multiple reports.
Barnes also said he has "high expectations" for the development of athletic wings Jalen Johnson and Yves Pons, who played sparingly off the bench this season as freshmen.
All told, the competition for playing time should help Tennessee improve. It could also scare someone away.
"They know we mean what we say when we say we are going to open it up (to competition)," Barnes said. "Every year there's always the possibility of somebody leaving. It could happen. I don't know if it will or not, but it could."
Memphis on schedule
The Tennessee-Memphis basketball rivalry is set to be renewed.
New Tigers coach Penny Hardaway confirmed to 92.9 FM in Memphis on Monday morning that the teams will play next season.
Dates have not been announced, but the plan is for Tennessee to play at Memphis in the upcoming season and then host the Tigers in 2019-20. The teams would meet in Nashville the following year — to celebrate basketball within the state, Barnes indicated.
"That's the reason we're going there that third year," he said. "I would imagine if it goes the way we want it to, it won't just be us playing that day when we go to Nashville. It'll be, again, like some kind of jamboree or extravaganza — something that will really promote basketball in the state of Tennessee."