KNOXVILLE — Grant Williams has identified a model for the 2017-18 Tennessee men's basketball Volunteers to follow in their quest to be a team nobody really wants to face.
"South Carolina last year, I would say," Williams said Thursday at the Vols' media day. "One of those teams that just bother you."
Last season's Gamecocks made a Final Four run that most viewed as a surprise.
To Williams, who averaged 12.6 points and six rebounds as a freshman last year, there was no shock in seeing the seventh-seeded Gamecocks make such a run.
"Every other team we played we had a chance to take the lead or win the game," Williams said. "Versus South Carolina, they just kicked our butt from the get-go. They knew what they were doing."
Tennessee nearly defeated eventual national champion North Carolina on the road last year and did beat perennial juggernaut Kentucky at home in Southeastern Conference play. The Vols were 13-9 at the end of January and on the cusp of NCAA tournament consideration, but they struggled down the stretch as a knee injury to senior leader and top scorer Robert Hubbs III worsened.
"It's different now," said Williams, who elected not to go into detail on what Tennessee's goals are this season, saying "you keep them internal and focus on winning."
But it's fair to assume the Vols' main mission is to qualify for the program's first NCAA tournament since 2014 in Rick Barnes' third year as coach, and there are reasons to believe they could do it.
"A lot more depth than last year," Williams said. "If you think about, last year when Hubbs went down it was hard to put the ball in the bucket. It was just difficult. I don't know if it was us, or if the fact is we were so reliant on him that every possession we couldn't get it to him it was tough. This year we have so many guys that can step up."
Hubbs and graduate transfer Lew Evans used up their eligibility, and combo guard Shembari Phillips transferred. But the Vols have brought reinforcements to their backcourt with junior college transfer Chris Darrington and graduate transfer James Daniel III, both considered natural scorers. Freshmen Jalen Johnson and Yves Pons will add athletic ability on the wing, while classmates Derrick Walker and Zach Kent add size to the frontcourt.
Tennessee plays an exhibition against Carson-Newman on Nov. 2 and opens the season against Presbyterian on Nov. 10.
Barnes said he believes Tennessee's 2017-18 slate is more challenging than the tough schedule his young team faced a year ago. During the Battle 4 Atlantis over Thanksgiving weekend in the Bahamas, Tennessee figures to play three quality opponents, beginning with Purdue. Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Wake Forest and Iowa State also highlight the nonconference schedule.
Fresh off a stronger-than-anticipated showing in this past year's NCAA tournament, the SEC has welcomed former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Virginia Commonwealth University coach Will Wade to LSU and former Tennessee and California coach Cuonzo Martin to Missouri.
"They both have themselves in a position where they are recruiting well," Barnes said. "This league is going to be better than it has been in about three years. Last year it proved to be one of the best leagues in the country. This year there are going to be some terrific games in this league. I think those guys will do well."
At the top of the SEC, Kentucky has reloaded, Florida returns several key players from an Elite Eight run and Texas A&M appears poised to challenge for league supremacy.
South Carolina lost several key players from last year's postseason run, but those Gamecocks have not been forgotten by Williams, who believes this year's Tennessee can embody what they modeled.
"A team that nobody wants to play against just because of how physical and tough we are," Williams said. "And the fact is, we are going to guard you and rebound the ball. You're going to get one shot, and we're going to push the ball in transition on you and make you defend us."
Not at full strength
Johnson and redshirt freshman forward John Fulkerson are limited participants in practice as they work back from injuries. Sophomore guard Jordan Bone participated in conditioning drills but did not go through full practice because of a minor injury. Daniel was a full participant in practice but said he is at "about 80 percent" while working back from an ankle injury that caused him to miss his senior season at Howard University last year.
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.