KNOXVILLE — Last year the Tennessee men's basketball program knew everyone was returning from the team that won 26 games the season before.
Outside observers swooned over the high-character veteran players who were comfortable with one another already and brought positive national attention to a program and a fan base that had been largely devoid of it for a while. While other teams were figuring things out, the Volunteers were cruising right along, with their familiarity helping them spend a month ranked No. 1 in the country, win 31 games and advance to the Sweet 16.
This season began with more unknowns than knowns and more hope than knowledge. The exits of four players who received NBA opportunities and two others who transferred led to a mismatched roster that seemed unprepared for the 2019-20 schedule.
So you know what happened? The Vols entered the season hoping everything would break the right way.
They had to hope Uros Plasvic, the 7-foot Arizona State transfer, would be granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA. Without him, what might have been the simple losses of D.J. Burns (6-9) to Winthrop and Derrick Walker Jr. (6-8) to Nebraska would loom just as large as the vacancies created by those who were moving on to the next level — because Burns and Walker would, if nothing else, have provided big bodies for a team largely devoid of them.
They had to hope guards Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner would take their next steps as seniors, meaning Turner would settle in as their top point guard and Bowden would become their primary scorer.
They had to hope the four-player freshman class would be ready to play immediately. The only problem is each came to Knoxville as a project. Josiah-Jordan James didn't have a shot because he had not needed one in high school, a level in which physical 6-foot-6 guards can get to the basket whenever they want. Vols coach Rick Barnes said Olivier Nkamhoua was a forward who had never played with his back to the basket. Davonte Gaines and Drew Pember had to bulk up and learn on the fly.
Then there were the surprise developments that occurred.
It's very possible Barnes didn't expect Jordan Bone to stay in the NBA draft pool; the former Tennessee point guard didn't announce that intention until May 28, which was after the spring signing period had ended. The 21st-ranked Vols (7-3), who are coming off back-to-back losses to Memphis and Cincinnati and host Jacksonville State (4-7) at 1 p.m. Saturday, have struggled at the point this season, with Bowden, James and Turner each having moments as the lead guard. Bowden and Turner are more natural as scorers, but James has played well in limited time at the position.
It's also possible Barnes had penciled in Plavsic as an active member of the team. His situation seemed like a slam dunk for a waiver allowing him to avoid sitting out a season, but the NCAA has not seen it that way. He has not been cleared and that may not happen this season, although Tennessee continues to hope.
If Bone had stayed and Plavsic was available to play, this team would obviously look different. As it stands, the Vols cane be broken up into two groups: young projects and veterans who have spent their collegiate careers as role players.
The older players had shields in years past: Bowden and Turner had Admiral Schofield to take on an opposing team's best perimeter defender and Bone to help take some of the playmaking load off of them. Post players John Fulkerson and Pons, two of the Vols' better surprises this season, didn't have much to worry about when Grant Williams was still on the roster. Through just 10 games, the juniors already have scored more points than they did in either of their first two seasons with the Vols.
Bowden, Fulkerson, Pons and Turner are now being counted on as team leaders, though they're still trying to learn how to lead in their new roles and simply figure out those roles.
This team, one that is learning with each game, is just 1-2 in December with two games remaining this month — Saturday's and Dec. 29 against Wisconsin — before opening Southeastern Conference play Jan. 4 at LSU.
The Vols will improve, though, as roles are more clearly defined and those filling them become more comfortable with their responsibilities. Maybe Turner's lingering shoulder injury will heal and his shooting — he's at 29% from the field and 23% from 3-point range — will improve.
Maybe newcomer Santiago Vescovi, set to join the team Dec. 28, will work his way into the rotation, though Barnes said Friday afternoon that it's "highly unlikely" the talented 6-2 guard will be available this season. It's hard to get a player acclimated to a college system during the season, when coaches are more concerned with scouting reports, game preparation and the actual games. It's not impossible, but it's going to be tough.
So this Tennessee team is what it is. As the players go through on-court battles together, they'll learn from each experience and grow. Mistakes in game situations — including those that don't show up on a stat sheet — will become fewer and far between.
The team will lean heavily on its defense and will find ways to manufacture points. It will be enough some nights but not others.
With a highly touted recruiting class signed for 2020-21, it's reasonable to expect most of the problems this roster presented will be solved. But this season, one with more questions than answers for the Vols, was always going to be a struggle for a team that will slowly improve.
At least that's the hope in Knoxville.