#35 Tennessee 2019-20 Preview

-Jim Root

Key Returners: Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, John Fulkerson, Yves Pons
Key Losses:
Grant Williams (pro), Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone (pro), Kyle Alexander
Key Newcomers:
Josiah-Jordan James, Olivier Nkamhoua, Drew Pember, Devonte Gaines, Uros Plavsic (Arizona St.)**


** - As of this writing, Plavsic was seeking a waiver to play immediately.

Outlook: After two tremendous seasons on the broad shoulders of the Bash Brothers (Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield), Tennessee suffered a heartbreaker in the Sweet 16 against Purdue, unable to survive the Ryan Cline Fireworks Display in an instant classic overtime battle. The Volunteers now face a transitional offseason in which they lose the aforementioned gladiators plus the relatively surprising pro defection of point guard Jordan Bone, and Rick Barnes will need to re-tool and re-design the Vols’ strategy quickly to avoid a large drop-off.

Playing through Williams, Schofield, and Bone, the Vols had one of the best offenses in the country last season, using a flex-heavy system to attack in the post and take advantage of mismatches. Williams threw himself a one-man parade to the free throw line, while the Vols’ shooters enjoyed countless open looks thanks to all of the attention paid to the interior. Last year’s Tennessee team ranked 28th nationally in frequency of post ups and 13th in efficiency on those possessions, per Synergy, but it was almost all thanks to Williams, Schofield, and Kyle Alexander. Frenchman Yves Pons (a constant favorite of Draft Twitter) has the physicality and athleticism to slide into the “mismatch” role, but he has a long way to go in terms of actual skill development to become an offensive focal point. It’s possible he can get there with a wide open path to playing time and touches, but the Vols will need other avenues to buckets.  

For that reason, the Vols may need to restructure their offense to be far more perimeter-oriented, where arguably their three best players reside: seniors Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden and five-star freshman Josiah-Jordan James. Bowden is locked in as a big wing scorer and shooter, but it will be interesting to see how Barnes divvies up ball-handling duties between Turner and James, a skilled big guard who played a ton of point in high school. Bone seemed like a lock all-conference pick before he opted for the draft, but the Vol offense surprisingly did not drop off at all when Turner ran the show without him:

Barnes rarely ran any pick-and-roll last year, but attacking with both Turner and James might maximize the strengths of his backcourt more than in past years. Additionally, the off-ball screening and cutting action will be difficult to guard since all three of Turner, Bowden, and James can shoot and attack closeouts, and it’s easy to imagine the big lefty James excelling off the Vols’ frequent down-screen action, shooting over smaller defenders and attacking the paint:

Bowden and Turner both had success off screens last year, as well, ranking in the 78th and 76th percentiles, respectively, per Synergy. It’s not quite Virginia’s mover-blocker, but it’s a smart set to utilize the scoring talents of these guards. With little depth behind them (it’s basically wing Jalen Johnson and hyper-thin freshman Davonte Gaines and that’s it), expect Pons to see some minutes at the 3, and scouts will be eager to see how he looks with the ball in his hands more.

Tennessee also found a ton of easy points via the offensive glass, an area where active big man Alexander’s departure will be felt heavily. John Fulkerson brings many of the same traits in his bouncy body, so Barnes will look to him to take over Alexander’s role, but the depth behind him is exceedingly unproven: three-star freshmen Olivier Nkamhoua and Drew Pember plus returner Zach Kent, all of whom have a combined 13 minutes of game experience. Tennessee hopes to have another big body in Uros Plavsic, though it’s unclear how the NCAA will handle his immediate eligibility waiver. With such turnover in the front court and the lack of post-up threats in the flex, generating easy buckets may be even more crucial this year.

Like in 2017-18, Tennessee’s calling card may need to be on the defensive end. The Vols ranked sixth that year in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, extending its man-to-man pressure to force turnovers and bother opposing shooters. Despite nearly having an identical roster last year, Tennessee became far more offense-oriented, but given the size and versatility dotting the roster – Pons, James, Bowden, Johnson, Fulkerson, Gaines – this team seems capable of returning to that defensive identity. All of those guys can switch most screens, and Turner isn’t a slouch despite being smaller at 6’2.

Bottom Line: As noted at the top of this preview, I voted Tennessee 33rd in our poll to assemble our Top 40 countdown, but after writing it, I’ve cooled a little on the Vols. They will have to prove they can score in different ways without the inimitable Williams to run the offense through, and the lack of experience in the front court may hinder the potentially imposing man-to-man defense. Barnes almost never fell out of the top 40 at Texas, but in an extremely deep SEC, the margins for error will be razor thin. I would exercise caution with the Vols until we see a little more how they’ll use this specific roster and if James can be a dynamic contributor from day one.