- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Jordan Bone, Kyle Alexander
Key Losses: James Daniel
Key Newcomers: DJ Burns
Outlook: Like its conference foe, Auburn, Tennessee was one of the most surprising teams of the 2017-18 season. Picked by many to finish anywhere from 11th – 14th in the suddenly deep SEC, the Vols smashed expectations to earn a share of the conference title with the aforementioned Tigers. Rick Barnes has completely turned around a program that looked lost under the one-year tenure of Donnie Tyndall, and now Tennessee figures to be a preseason top ten squad with nearly everyone of consequence returning from last year.
Defense was the key all last season for the Vols. Tennessee ranked 6th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency (per KenPom) thanks to its physicality and tenacity. Despite being an average-sized ball club, the Vols were one of the best offensive rebounding units in the country, simply out-working other teams. One game in particular stood out to me last year when Tennessee out-rebounded the trees of Purdue 50-41, grabbing 20 o-boards on the way to an overtime victory. Barnes’s squad likes to slow opposing teams down, force turnovers by playing solid help defense, and funnel would-be scorers into the lane where its bigs can swat away shots.
Offensively, Tennessee plays a patient brand of basketball, sharing the rock around the floor and taking time off the clock in the half court. Everything goes through big man Grant Williams, a bulldog of a forward with one of the best all-around games in the nation. The Vols start most possessions with a Williams high ball screen and then allow the forward to make decisions from the top of the key. Alternatively, they play through Williams down on the block where the big man is one of the best at passing out of doubles and seeing the floor. To complement Williams’s post game, the Vols have 3 or 4 knock-down shooters on the floor at all times, waiting and willing to fire from deep: in 2017-18, Tennessee ranked 7th in assist rate and 45th in 3PFG%. As alluded to above, offensive rebounding is a major part of Tennessee’s scoring success, and when Barnes went big last season with Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Kyle Alexander, the Vols grabbed 39.4% of available offensive rebounds. For comparison, the #1 offensive rebounding team in the nation last year, Duke, grabbed misses at a 38.8% clip.
Williams is the catalyst of the Vol attack and Barnes makes it a point to get him a touch every possession. His patience, athleticism, strength, and off-the-charts basketball IQ make him one of the toughest players to guard in the country. Here, Williams shows off his smarts and bounce by flashing back to the ball after setting a screen, converting a catch into a swift spin move, and finishing with authority over a helpless defender:
Here, Williams displays his patience and passing ability after catching the ball at the high post:
Williams’s frontcourt counterparts are Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander. Schofield is perhaps the bulkiest good three-point shooter in the history of basketball – he’s a sturdy 6’5” 240 lbs. The Admiral shot 39.5% from deep last year, proved yet again to be a ferocious rebounder, and functioned as an elite defender from several spots. He and Williams form an intimidating duo that makes up lack of height with brawn. Alexander is a long 7-footer who has improved steadily each year. The rising senior ranked 10th in the country in offensive rating (#1 in the SEC) due to his primary offensive function as a “catch-and-dunk” center. His post game has improved, however, and a 71% FT% suggests Alexander has potential to grow offensively. Defensively, Alexander was the 5th best shot blocker by rate in the SEC, and he’s a glass destroyer on both ends of the floor.
Barnes has some nice depth at the forward spot this year with the return of sophomores John Fulkerson and Derrick Walker, but the addition of top-100 recruit DJ Burns is the real reason for excitement. Burns, a former member of the 2019 class, is still developing his body from a conditioning standpoint, but the offensive skills are there. He’ll serve as a good offensive option off the pine this year and a possible future go-to guy (possibly in a Grant Williams role) down the road.
Tennessee’s backcourt is often overshadowed by its frontcourt, but the Vols have a solid triumvirate of options at the guard spot. Lamonte Turner, the co-Sixth Man of the Year last season in the SEC, is an instant offense spark plug off the bench. Turner is a money outside shooter (2nd in SEC play at 45.2%) that can push it in transition in the rare instances Tennessee tries to run. He has a tendency to force shots within the arc at times, but he’s still one of the better pure scorers in the conference.
A pair of Jordans, Jordan Bowden and Jordan Bone will fill out the starting five with the aforementioned big men. Bowden is yet another 39%+ three-point shooter, a rangy, quick wing that provides both slashing and shooting from the 2-spot. Bone is quietly one of the top point guards in the SEC. He racked up a high assist rate during his junior year while also minimizing turnovers. We will likely see a lot more of Bone this year with the departure of James Daniel, which is a good thing per Hoop Lens, as the Vols were better on both ends of the floor when Bone played instead of Daniel in 2017-18.
I, like many, am very high on this Tennessee team. Talent-wise and experience-wise, the Vols should be considered the SEC favorite alongside Kentucky. Advanced stats indicated the Vols were even better than their 26-9 record suggested in 2017-18, meaning we could see the school’s first ever 1-seed bid in the 2019 Dance.