Tennessee's 2020-21 men's basketball season ended with a lethargic 70-56 loss to Oregon State in the first round of the NCAA tournament and with Volunteers coach Rick Barnes admitting his program needed more of an inside presence moving forward.
On Wednesday afternoon, during his first Zoom call since an anticipated season ended abruptly at 18-9, Barnes had no complaints with his roster moving forward.
"We're excited about how things worked out for us," Barnes said. "We're more than excited, because the things we felt like we needed to address, we addressed."
The unique opportunity for 6-foot-9, 215-pound forward John Fulkerson to come back for a sixth season of eligibility was the most recent piece to a promising puzzle that includes the return of guards Victor Bailey, Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi, as well as the addition of Auburn guard Justin Powell through the NCAA transfer portal. Tennessee has returning size inside with Uros Plavsic (7-0, 262) and Olivier Nkamhoua (6-8, 223), but what has really jacked up expectations again is a signing class that is No. 4 nationally in the 247Sports.com composite rankings and contains a little bit of everything.
Five-star point guard Kennedy Chandler (6-1, 165) and five-star power forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield (6-9, 230) headline a crop that also includes four-star center Jonas Aidoo (6-11, 215), four-star small forward Jahmai Mashack (6-5, 190) and three-star shooting guard Quentin Diboundje (6-6, 185).
"We try to recruit to what we do, but sometimes you get guys who surprise you and can do more than you think and sometimes not as much as you thought," Barnes said. "I like to think that this team is going to rebound the ball better, because we're going to be bigger, and I think we'll shoot it better, which is important that we do that.
"More importantly is that we will hopefully get a normal year and do some of the things that we've done in the past."
Tennessee currently is not using all 13 of its scholarships and may not, with Barnes adding, "It would have to be something special to add to what we have right now."
Special is certainly one way to describe what Chandler could mean for the Vols, with last season's team having never possessed a true point guard.
"I'm excited about the opportunity to work with Kennedy Chandler," new Vols assistant and former N.C. State point guard Justin Gainey said. "I've watched him from a distance, and I'm a guy who loves studying and watching the point-guard position, and when you get a guy like Kennedy, who plays that position at a high, high level — he can score, and he makes his teammates better. At the end of the day, he's all about winning, and I am just so excited.
"I'm pulling out old film, because he's going to challenge me, too. It's just going to be a fun experience, and I can't wait."
One of the more interesting dynamics to next season's Tennessee team is the coexisting of Powell and Vescovi. They share in being versatile, with each having played point guard and with each having the potential to light up from 3-point range, but Barnes believes the two have their differences as well.
"Justin has proven he can play the point if he has to, but Justin is a guy who I think is terrific at coming off screens and creating offense where he moves without the ball," Barnes said. "I think he's going to be great at that, and I think he won't just score but create some offense, too. His size is a huge advantage, too.
"Justin and Santi have the versatility, but Justin is bigger. I think Santi is a guy who feels better when he has the ball and is in different actions that way, whereas Justin really looks forward to coming off screens and is going to be really good at that for us."