Jimmy’s blog: Barnes thinks Vols could be `special’

By Jimmy Hyams

Six SEC men’s basketball teams have made it to the Final Four.

Tennessee is not one of them.

In fact, the Vols have made it to the Elite Eight just once.

But Paul Biancardi, ESPN basketball national recruiting director, thinks Tennessee is a potential Final Four team this season if Yves Pons returns.

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes doesn’t disagree.

“I’d like to think every year we start,’’ Barnes said, “whether we have the potential or not, we think we’re good enough to get there because in my lifetime I’ve seen teams get to the Final Four that at the start of the season, you wouldn’t think they would even make the NCAA Tournament, and they got there.

“Are we excited about this group? There is no question we are excited.’’

In his sure-fire Hall of Fame career, Barnes has guided one team to the Final Four, Texas in 2003. He’s been to 24 NCAA tournaments. He’s coached two national players of the year and several conference players of the year.

And he would like nothing better than to guide two different schools to the Final Four.

It’s not an easy task, but Barnes thinks some of the bad luck that struck last year’s team might help this season.

The early season injury to Lamonte Turner, the mid-season arrival of point guard Santiago Vescovi and the late eligibility for Uros Plavsic allowed – or forced – Tennessee to play a lot of young guys.

That didn’t help last year’s record (17-14) but it could help this year.

“We went through a lot last year,’’ Barnes said in a recent interview on Sports Talk, WNML radio. “But now we think that was a blessing in disguise in some ways — and we’re adding our news players.’’

Those new players are five-star signees Kaden Springer and Keon Johnson and four-star forward Corey Walker. Each has a chance to crack the starting lineup.

UT also added 6-foot-6 E.J. Anosike, who averaged double figures in rebounding each of his two seasons at Division I Sacred Heart University. He brings a tenacity and toughness UT lacked at times during the 2019-20 campaign.

Last year, Pons emerged as a double digit scorer, John Fulkerson became an All-SEC player, Vescovi proved to be an accurate 3-point shooter.

“To say we’re not excited wouldn’t be truthful,’’ Barnes said. “We think we’ve got a chance to have something special, but we’re going to have to go do it.’’

Biancardi would agree, especially if Pons returns.

“Tennessee becomes one of the best teams in the country with the recruiting class and him (Pons) coming back,’’ Biancardi said.

Maybe that will translate into Tennessee’s first-ever Final Four.

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