Jimmy’s blog: UT assistant thinks Vols can make Final Four

By Jimmy Hyams

Tennessee has never been to a men’s basketball Final Four.

Not even when it had dynamic duos playing together like Bernard King and Ernie Grunfield, Ron Slay and Vincent Yarbrough, Chris Lofton and C.J. Watson, or Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield.

In fact, the Vols have been to just one Elite Eight.

But that could change this season.

Tennessee might have enough talent and depth to be among the nation’s best teams.

That’s the hope of Vols assistant Desmond Oliver, who was a guest Thursday on SportsTalk WNML radio.

“This team, one to 13, one to 12, is deeper from a talent perspective (than the 31-win team of two years ago),’’ Oliver said. “And certainly I think this team could be playing that last game of the season, when all is said and done.

“Does that mean winning 30 games? Or in the 20s? I don’t know. We have the potential to do something very, very special at Tennessee.

“The good thing is, we might not be a team with a first-team All-American carrying you but one that’s got a bunch of answers every night; someone different can step up and make plays for you.’’

The keys will be chemistry, player improvement and help from newcomers.

The return of forward Yves Pons, who withdrew his name from the NBA draft on Monday, was huge. Pons is the reigning SEC defensive player of the year.

“His defensive prowess is unbelievable,’’ Oliver said. “He’s one of the best defenders probably in the country, which is primarily why the NBA was so intrigued by Yves because he takes baskets away.’’

Pons tied a school record last year with 73 blocks – with at least one in each game – and he was robbed of adding to that total as the coronavirus shut down the season March 12 while the SEC Tournament was being played.

For Pons to play at the next level, he must improve his ball handling and outside shooting. Oliver said Pons has done just that during offseason workouts.

“One thing I’m watching right now,’’ Oliver said, “he’s really shooting the catch-and-shoot 3-point shot with much more confidence and at a higher level. His ball skills have taken another jump where he’s able to make more plays off the dribble.

“He’s a better passer, and certainly as a finisher, there are not five guys in America that play better when they are at the rim than Yves Pons.’’

Oliver is high on guard Victor Bailey, Jr., the Oregon transfer who sat out last year but impressed during practice.

“One thing I’ve always loved in general with any guard is the ability to dribble, pass and shoot and VJ does that at a high level,’’ Oliver said. “He came to us as transfer well versed at putting the ball in the basket.

“And to my surprise, the type speed he has. He’s a tremendous athlete. He’s going to develop into one of our best defenders as he starts to put his mind toward to being a great on ball, off ball defender.

“He’s really a super, uber talented type player that has a lot of ability. One thing our team is going to value from Day One is his ability to put the ball in the basket, just a tremendous outside shooter and scorer.’’

Oliver called 6-7 freshman wing Keon Johnson “a helluva talent, to sum it up in a nutshell. He’s super, super talented, not just offensively.

“It’s rare that you get guys who athletically jump off the charts in every aspect: running, jumping, and lateral speed, but who also have a high IQ for the game, a high skill set for the game with great size for the position.

“Then you add the fact defensively, they like to take on the challenge and want to be a two-way player. Those are rare mixtures for a freshman.’’

Oliver said 6-foot-7 forward transfer E.J. Anosike, who averaged a double-double at Sacred Heart College, “carries himself like a pro; his mindset is like a grown man whose been playing pro ball for several years the way he trains and works.’’

Oliver said one thing UT lacked last year was rebounding and Anosike “will bring that to our team from Day One.’’

Oliver expects big things from 6-9 senior John Fulkerson, who emerged as a second-team All-SEC selection after being a role player earlier in his career. He averaged 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds. During a three-game stretch against Auburn, Kentucky and Florida, he averaged 22.6 points.

“If we’d played (more games last year),’’ Oliver said. “I think John was going to put himself in position to be the SEC Player of the Year.’’

Oliver expects this year’s Vols to be deeper than any team Rick Barnes has had in Knoxville, but he also added, “I don’t know if we will have the same leadership (as the 31-win team).’’

Tennessee has a well-earned reputation of player development, underscored by the improvement of players like Kevin Punter, Jordan Bone, Williams, Schofield, Pons and Fulkerson.

But UT, like other college programs, hasn’t been able to work as much with players this offseason due to restrictions resulting from the coronavirus. Could that hurt UT?

“The thing that make us special is no one in America spends more time in developing players than their program,’’ Oliver said.

Oliver was honest when asked if every player showed up in shape.

“Every guy is different,’’ he said. “I’m not going to lie to you. Some guys came back and were further along than others.’’

Barnes, who has built a Hall of Fame resume and won 707 games, has just one Final Four appearance to his name.

He would like to add another. And he might.

“They’re all hungry to win a national championship, and be the best player they can be,’’ Oliver said. “But you can’t have that without discipline and a routine’’

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