Odds to win Title: +2800
2017-18 Record: 26-9 (13-5 SEC)
NCAA Tournament: Lost to Loyola-Chicago in Second Round
The Tennessee Volunteers surprised the college basketball world last season, after entering the year ranked No. 13 in the preseason but eventually winning the SEC and making it to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Head coach Rick Barnes views that success as little more than a “stepping stone,” as a coach who has led 23 teams to the NCAA tournament. He added further, “If what we did last season looks big to us, we’ve made a mistake.” So, the bar is set high in Knoxville for a team that has plenty of promise to fulfill its high expectations.
At forward, the Volunteers return SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams. He will be the No. 1 option in the offense after averaging 15.2 points per game last season. Even as great as Williams was and can be, the Vols know that it must look more to senior Kyle Alexander whose athletic ability and size should play a dominant role in the offense. He blocked 57 shots last year while changing many more, and defensively he is an absolute key for the Volunteers.
Williams drew so many double teams after his 37-point game at Vandy last year, that his passing out of those traps will prove as vital as his scoring ability. But he is an adept passer, and that should only make it easier on the bevy of three-point shooters that will surround the arc for him. Among those is Admiral Schofield who is an interior player well capable of stepping out to hit the three.
Expect a familiar theme for Tennessee on the defensive end, though, where teams prefer to go at its premier offensive players in hopes of getting them into foul trouble. Derrick Walker, now a sophomore, as well as John Fulkerson, will bring some depth if teams are successful with that M.O.
DJ Burns left high school a year early, and at 6’9” 280 pounds, he has some work to do if he is to get into true “playing shape.” Still, his potential is tantalizing and he could be available as a major contributor if he can slim down some.
Jordan Bone headlines the backcourt as a junior point guard whose major question mark is his consistency. At times last year, he was nearly invisible on the court, and Barnes said as much, “Consistency is the keyword.” Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden will also be big in the backcourt, but Bone really is the key to it working. He had 124 assists to his 44 turnovers last year, which is outstanding, but it is not enough to satisfy Barnes, who sets the bar higher for Bone and the entire team, really.
Turner won the SEC’s 6th Man of the Year award, and he is an outside shooter that can fill it up. Bowden is the best defender and at 6’5” he has the size to cover 1s, 2s, and 3s at times, while also knocking down 39.5 percent from three on the offensive end. Frenchman Yves Pons is interesting as a defender and athlete but is unclear how big his role will be this year as a sophomore. Jalen Johnson is another 6’7” wing player who is a premier defender, but it is unclear how much he improved over the offseason as a freshman a year ago.
Tennessee really can be boiled down to the bone, not to be cliche or absurd. Bone’s consistency is probably the single biggest key to Tennessee reaching its high potential this season because the team excels in many of the minor or intangible facets, such as team defense and rebounding.
If Bone can run the show and show up nightly, this team easily could manage to sneak into the Final Four. If he repeats last season, it will be another early exit for an otherwise outstanding SEC team.