KNOXVILLE — Coming off one of the most successful seasons in school history, the Tennessee men's basketball team began practice for the 2019-20 season Tuesday at Pratt Pavilion.
The Volunteers won 31 games last season and spent a month as the No. 1 team in the country, finishing sixth in the final Associated Press poll and 10th in the final coaches poll. Four starters off that team are gone, with three — Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone — selected in the NBA draft and forward Kyle Alexander having earned a free-agent contract with the Miami Heat.
In addition, Tennessee lost a pair of forwards in Derrick Walker (Nebraska) and D.J. Burns (Winthrop) who may have contributed this season.
So what's left? What should expectations be? Today the Times Free Press takes a look the 2019-20 roster.
The Vols' returning production begins with senior guards Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, who combined to average 22.6 points per game last season and will need to contribute at least that much this season and probably more. Both are capable and have shown the ability to be knock-down shooters, making a combined 100 3-pointers last season. Each can be a primary ball-handler but looks more comfortable on the wing as opposed to bringing the ball up and making decisions. Junior forward John Fulkerson has been a quality player off the bench and likely will be needed to take on increased duties. Athletic forward Yves Pons is limited offensively but started 13 games last season and will have a role, as will junior guard Jalen Johnson, who can score but struggled to find the floor behind Schofield and Bone due to some defensive concerns. Zach Kent is a quality shooter at 6-foot-11 and could carve out a role in the frontcourt.
Well, plenty. The Vols brought in four freshmen, with at least one needed to help immediately. They also brought in a pair of transfers, with hopes that one will be eligible immediately. Josiah James highlights the freshmen as a 6-6 guard likely to join Bowden and Turner to give the Vols a three-guard lineup. He's probably the most comfortable in the point guard role. Forward Olivier Nkamhoua could be another who gets an early look, a versatile 6-7 player who could fit a role similar to that of Williams before him. Swingman Davonte Gaines and forward Drew Pember could help but are looked at more for future contributions than for immediate impacts. Seven-foot Arizona State transfer Uros Plavsic would be the heir apparent to Alexander inside should he be granted immediate eligibility from the NCAA, while Oregon transfer guard Victor Bailey will sit out this season and have two years remaining starting in 2020-21.
The Vols' primary strength last season hinged on solid basketball players who jelled together and formed the level of cohesiveness necessary to be a good team. Tennessee wasn't uber-talented but was great as a team. While the Vols don't have as much of that this season, they do have enough to be formidable. Bowden and Turner have played a lot and will be the leaders. Fulkerson and Pons have seen a lot. James projects to be a solid player who will be asked to do a lot from the beginning. Johnson seems poised for a breakout year. And Tennessee's recruiting rankings have not mattered over the past two years, because coach Rick Barnes and staff have been good at identifying good basketball players who fit his system, regardless of ranking.
Defensively, the Vols weren't great last season, and questions loom as to how good they'll be on that end of the court. In terms of personnel, there's not a ton of experience beyond Bowden and Turner. Fulkerson and Pons have been role players at best during their careers. Beyond those players, what can people expect? James hasn't played a minute of college basketball. Neither has Plavsic, and those are two players the Vols need to be solid immediately. If Plavsic isn't granted immediate eligibility, the lineups will have to be altered and Fulkerson, Pons, Kent and Nkamhoua will have to collectively fill even more of a role. Are they ready?
Keys to the season
With Bowden, Turner and James, the Vols are expected to be a guard-heavy unit, but one of those players — or maybe it's Johnson — will have to emerge as a playmaker down the stretch in games. Williams was OK in that role a season ago, but he was an undersized power forward who sometimes struggled against taller competition. Schofield had his moments but wasn't really a player who could create his own shot. With his quickness and ball-handling ability, Bone was best suited for that role, but for some reason it never translated. Tennessee's offense was at its best when there was constant ball movement and not standing, but there are times when a team needs a player to go get a shot. Can one emerge for the Vols?
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.