When Tennessee tipped off its 2020-21 men's basketball season, the prevailing thought was that five-star freshman guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer would be two of the top players for the Volunteers entering tournament time.
Right on schedule.
When the Vols (17-7) face Florida (14-8) on Friday afternoon in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament, they will do so with Springer averaging a team-high 12.4 points per contest and with Johnson third at 10.8. They began this season coming off the bench but will face the Gators having each started more than 50% of his games.
"They have made a lot of progress, and they've had to do it at times when we've been struggling," Vols coach Rick Barnes said. "They didn't get a typical offseason. Just like all freshmen coming into college basketball, this hasn't been the normal year for them. That was a major disadvantage for all freshmen coming in.
"They have done everything that we've asked them to do."
No. 4 seed Tennessee received a double bye into the SEC quarterfinals. The fifth-seeded Gators advanced with a 69-63 dumping of 12th-seeded Vanderbilt on Thursday afternoon in Nashville.
Springer, a 6-foot-4, 204-pounder from Charlotte, North Carolina, and Johnson, a 6-5, 186-pounder from Shelbyville, Tennessee, have been the most consistent players down the stretch for the Vols, with the duo combining for 50 points during an 82-71 win at Kentucky on Feb. 6. Springer is a stellar 18-of-39 (46.2%) on 3-point attempts this season.
"I think Jaden Springer is Tennessee's most valuable player," former Vols guard and current SEC Network analyst Dane Bradshaw said. "He's reliable on the defensive end. He stays within his game on the offensive end. He'll take a couple of 3s if they're there, but he knows his strength is attacking.
"He gets in the paint under control. Can he turn it over at times? Yes, but it's not a big issue."
Johnson's ability to drive to the basket is evidenced by his team-leading 93 free throws.
Tennessee's freshmen were praised as all-around talents coming out of high school and have delivered, combining for 122 assists, 49 steals and 21 blocks, but their time in Knoxville could be waning. ESPN earlier this week pegged Johnson as the No. 6 prospect for the 2021 NBA draft and ranked Springer 20th.
"Keon Johnson may have his best asset in the NBA on the defensive end," Bradshaw said. "That doesn't mean he can't shoot it, but I could see him being an All-NBA first- or second-team defensive guy, given his athleticism and the pride he takes in defending."
Of course, such decisions don't have to be made right now. Tennessee is bidding for its first SEC tournament title since 1979, with a pair of players born in 2002 looking to lead the way.
"They've had to learn multiple positions probably for the first time in their careers," Barnes said. "They've been asked to do a lot more from a thinking the game aspect as opposed to just using their abilities to overpower people. We've enjoyed coaching them, because they're competitive. They want to win. They have dealt with the ups and downs of what I think college freshmen can go through.
"Right now, more than ever, I hope that they can just put it all together for themselves and for us. We have high expectations. They have high expectations. Overall, I think they've been terrific."