It was a Tennessee basketball season that started later than expected and ended sooner than projected.
The Volunteers produced notable achievements with an 11-point triumph at Kentucky and a 19-point blowout of Kansas, but they also lost by 26 at Florida and were never a threat in Friday's 70-56 loss to Oregon State during a Midwest Region first-round game in the NCAA tournament. Tennessee somehow went just 18-9 with three five-star signees — sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James and freshman guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer — but there wasn't a true point guard on the roster, and the inside game was erratic at best.
"Getting here is not an easy thing to do, but we've been up and down all year," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said minutes after the season ended. "If you look at our team all year, it was the inconsistency and not really knowing from game to game what we were going to get. If you ask me, that's the most disappointing thing, because to be a championship caliber team, you've got to be more consistent.
"You can't turn the ball over the way we did at times, and you've got to be able to rebound, but that's tough to do when you don't have that inside presence."
That inside presence.
Barnes has addressed the point guard predicament by landing five-star prospect and McDonald's All American Kennedy Chandler, and a sizable piece to the inside puzzle could be provided if fifth-year senior forward John Fulkerson uses the NCAA's extra year of eligibility that has been allowed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Fulkerson (6-foot-9, 215 pounds) said before his final game in Knoxville that he would either return or try his luck professionally but that transferring elsewhere was not an option.
E.J. Anosike (6-7, 245), a senior who transferred from Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, decided during the season he would use the NCAA's extra year, while former Hamilton Heights standout Uros Plavsic (7-0, 262) should return after providing quality minutes in the Southeastern Conference semifinal against Alabama before struggling against the Beavers.
There are also inside possibilities with Olivier Nkamhoua (6-8, 223) and Corey Walker (6-8, 219), a consensus top-75 signee last year who was affected by both COVID-19 and a toe injury and never played as a freshman.
"We've got to have an inside presence," Barnes said. "We've never not had some kind of an inside presence. We've got to change. We've got to get back to having an inside presence the way that we play and the way that we want to play."
When asked about Johnson and Springer, who recently were listed by ESPN as top-20 prospects for the 2021 NBA draft, Barnes said they would go through the process and he would focus on next season's personnel. The most optimistic of rosters right now for 2021-22 would have Chandler running point, with James, Santiago Vescovi and Victor Bailey Jr. providing a mix of 3-point shooting — an obvious disaster against Oregon State — and drives to the basket.
Fulkerson's return likely would be enough to give Tennessee a collection that could at least reach another NCAA tournament, and next season's roster should include Davonte Gaines and four-star signee Jahmal Mashack. It's naive to think the NCAA transfer portal won't have some kind of effect in the upcoming weeks with players choosing to leave or join the Vols, but there is also the element of consistent toughness that needs to be enhanced next winter no matter who takes the floor.
"There is not another team that works harder than us day in and day out, so I think the steps that we have to take now are on the mental side," James said. 'There is only one winner, and the team that's going to win is going to have the mental toughness to grind it out. The seasons are long and hard. They really are.
"I feel like our guys are going to get better. They're going to work on what they need to work on, but we just need to be mentally tougher moving forward."