Photo Credit UTSports.com
As weird as it sounds, Tennessee has become a basketball school. The Vol’s have appeared in the last three NCAA tournaments and will almost certainly make the Big Dance for a fourth straight time this Spring. Rick Barnes has brought grit and determination to Rocky Top, making them perennial SEC regular season and tournament contenders. Strap in Big Blue Nation, because it looks like we’re about to witness another impressive Tennessee season.
Justin Powell (Auburn)
G Kennedy Chandler, 6’0 Fr.
G Victor Bailey, 6’4 Sr.
G Justin Powell, 6’6 So.
G Josiah Jordan-James, 6’6 Jr.
F Brandon Huntington-Hatfield, 6’10 Fr.
G Santiago Vescovi, 6’3 Jr.
F Olivier Nkamhuoa, 6’8 Jr.
F Jonas Aidoo, 6’11 Fr.
F Uros Plavsic, 7’0 Jr.
G Jahmai Mashack, 6’4 Fr.
* F John Fulkerson, 6’9 Gr.
*Expected to miss the beginning of the season
Tennessee has the makings of a very special team. Veteran upperclassmen, hardworking role players, talented freshmen- you name it and Tennessee has it.
There are very few flaws in this team for Big Blue Nation to smirk at. But it never hurts to find the good, so let’s look at what Tennessee lost over the Summer first.
Losing Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer to the NBA draft hurts. Johnson and Springer were pegged as lottery picks once-upon-a-time, but the duo slid into the back end of the draft last minute. Springer was the Vols’ leading scorer last season, averaging 12.5 points on the year. Johnson came in right behind him with 11.3 PPG.
Yves Pons is another hard piece to replace. Pons, or “the most interesting man in college basketball,” had a historic career in Knoxville. The Fuveau, France native became Tennessee basketball’s only SEC Defensive Player of the year in 2020. After last year’s selection, Pons became the second Vol in program history to be named to the SEC All-Defense team in consecutive seasons (Josh Richardson was the first). His 8.7 PPG and 5.3 RPG don’t jump off the stat sheet, but Pons’ impact on both sides of the court will be sorely missed by the Volunteers.
Tennessee also lost some bench depth to the transfer pool. EJ Anosike, Davonte Gaines and Drew Pember all transferred out of the program, but none of the above should be a big loss. Only Anosike played more than five minutes per game with an average of 8.5 over 22 games.
Johnson, Springer and Pons are monumental losses for the Vols, but the addition of Justin Powell, Kennedy Chandler and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield should help in a big way.
Powell, a Kentucky native, was rumored to be a transfer target for John Calipari and the Wildcats. Instead of coming to Lexington, he traded his ugly, orange Auburn jersey for an ugly, orange Tennessee one. Powell is going into his sophomore season and is a high-level scorer on the wing. He’s long at 6’6 and surprised scouts around the country with his performance last year. The former 3-star recruit averaged 11.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG and 4.7 APG in his freshman season. Assuming he continues to develop, Powell has the makings of another first round pick for Head Coach Rick Barnes.
Chandler was 247Sports’ No. 6 player in the 2021 class and the top-rated point guard. The speedy, 6’1 guard has the makings of a top-10 pick with impressive playmaking abilities and athleticism. Chandler’s known as a reliable player and makes winning plays. 247Sports’ resident scouting guru Jerry Meyer compares him to former Kentucky standout Eric Bledsoe.
Huntley-Hatfield was another missed target for Kentucky, but this loss hurts more than others considering his cousin is Alex Poythress. Huntley-Hatfield is a 6’9, 5-star power forward. 247Sports ranks him as the no. 23 player in the 2021 class. Huntley-Hatfield has the makings of a future pro, Meyer compares with another former Kentucky great: Julius Randle. The big man will likely start to begin the season, but as other’s become available for the Vol’s he will have to fight for a starting role.
Among the returning forwards battling Huntley-Hatfield for a starting role are John Fulkerson (Gr.) and Josiah-Jordan James (Jr.).
Fulkerson has become an invaluable leader for Barnes and the Volunteers. “Fulky,” as the Knoxville media has affectionately dubbed him, had a rocky season last year, scoring four-points or less in seven games over the season. In fairness to him, the Volunteers were plagued with COVID issues all season and were constantly thrown out of rhythm. Fulkerson was injured in the SEC tournament after being elbowed by Florida’s Omar Payne. He suffered a wrist injury over the summer and is expected to miss approximately six weeks after surgery (per Knox News). Depending on his health, Fulkerson will be a reliable post player on both sides of the court.
James was a 5-star recruit back in 2019. The 6’6 guard has the potential to be a 15-points-a-night scorer, but only saw a minimal jump in his stats his sophomore year. James was incredibly inconsistent last season. At one point he had back-to-back 2-point games, then jumped off with a 17-point outing in a win against Arkansas only to follow the performance up with another 2-point game. There were plenty of reasons for James’ inconsistency last year, a crowded back court and season filled with COVID induced off-weeks chief among them. While his shooting was spotty at best last year, James was a reliable rebounder and defender for the Vols. The sky’s the limit for this kid, but the year could end with his name being called in the NBA draft or a need for a senior season to prove his worth.
Tennessee’s backcourt is stacked. In addition to Powell, Kennedy and James, the Volunteers returned Victor Bailey and Santiago Vescovi. Among returning players, Bailey was the leading scorer last year with an average of 10.9 PPG. Bailey is an experienced guard who played an important part in Oregon’s surprising 2019 PAC Tournament championship. Vescovi is a native of Uruguay and came off the bench as a spark-plug player last season. He averaged 8.7 PPG and shot an impressive 37.3 percent from long range last year. Vescovi drained six 3-pointers and ended with 23 points in a win over Texas A&M in January.
Returning forwards Olivier Nkamhuoa and Uros Plavsic will be valuable role players off the bench. Nkamhuoa was a 3-star recruit in the 2019 class and has had limited playing time in his career with the Vols. Plavsic transferred from Arizona State two years ago but has yet to play any significant minutes. Standing 6’8 and 7’0 tall, the duo will have a chance to prove themselves early in the year with Fulkerson sidelined by injury.
On paper Tennessee may have the best roster in the nation. If the Vol’s can stay healthy and get production out of their freshmen there really isn’t a limit on what they can achieve this year.
Ceiling: Top 3; NCAA Champion
Floor: Top 25