The Tennessee men’s basketball team is picked No. 10 in the Yahoosports.com preseason poll.
Gary Parrish of CBS Sports projects Tennessee No. 13 in his way-to-early men’s basketball Top 25.
Jeff Borzello of ESPN has the Vols No. 14.
Tennessee was 17-14 last season before the SEC tournament was halted due to the COVID-19 virus. It was 9-9 in SEC play. It lost its last home game 85-63 to Auburn.
After a disappointing season, why the optimism?
1.The roster. The Vols return four starters and signed a top five recruiting class.
2. The transfer. The Vols landed a bruising grad transfer in 6-foot-6, 245-pound E.J. Anosike.
3. The coach. Rick Barnes.
The only starter lost was Jordan Bowden, who had an up-and-down senior season. The returners are second-team All-SEC forward John Fulkerson, SEC Defensive Player of the Year Yves Pons, freshman point guard Santiago Vescovi and freshman wing Josiah-Jordan James, whose production was curtailed by a hip and groin injury.
Anosike might bring the rugged, physical, tough, competitive, nasty disposition last year’s team didn’t have. His college coach at Sacred Heart in Connecticut, Anthony Latina, said Anosike is the “hardest worker’’ he’s ever coached and is “relentless’’ and “plays til he’s exhausted.’’
Anosike averaged 15.7 points and 11.6 rebounds his junior season at Sacred Heart. You can’t expect him to match those numbers at UT, but if he can average 8 points, 6 rebounds and spell Fulkerson, he would be a great addition – perhaps the missing piece to a puzzle that could land the Vols a 25-win season and top 10 ranking.
And Barnes has proven he’s outstanding at developing players. His track record is not 100% but he’s helped guys like Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Kyle Alexander, Jordan Bone and Kevin Punter – and Fulkerson – to earn the benefit of the doubt.
Anosike could be the key to the team. His presence might allow the Vols to reduce Fulkerson’s minutes from 35 to 28, making him more efficient.
And while points don’t always travel from a smaller school to the SEC, rebounding does. So does attitude. And toughness.
But Anosike isn’t the only key.
James must be a bigger and more consistent contributor. He needs to average at least 10 points while also producing rebounds and assists.
Vescovi must improve his turnover ratio. He’s crafty with the ball, but he must value it more. He’s a good 3-point shooter and the guy you want on the foul line late in games.
Another key will be whether the freshmen live up to their billing. Jaden Springer and Kean Johnson are five-star recruits while Cory Walker is a four star. Neither has to score 12 points per game, but at least one has to provide some offense.
Tennessee could have a well-rounded attack with five players averaging between 10 and 15 points per game, and a team that can rebound and defend at a high level.
Anosike won’t be the only player on the roster that plays with passion. Pons does. And so does Fulkerson. And so does the freshman Johnson, who might be one of the team’s best perimeter defenders when he walks on campus.
It will be up to Barnes to fit the pieces in the right puzzle places.
He’s done that before.
If he does it again, Tennessee could compete for the SEC championship and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.