Tennessee Defying Preseason Expectations with Hot Start

Posted by David Changas on December 5th, 2017

On Monday morning of this week, Tennessee entered the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2010. And while it has been a very long road back into the national rankings for a program on its fourth head coach in those intervening seasons, things finally appear to be on the upswing in Knoxville. Under third-year coach Rick Barnes, the Volunteers are proving correct those skeptics around the program who scoffed at the SEC media’s  preseason 13th-place projection. Tennessee’s only loss to date came in a semifinal match-up against #4 Villanova at the Battle 4 Atlantis, and even that was a game in which the Vols led by double-figures at the half. Barnes’ team also owns a number of resume-enhancing wins against Purdue, NC State, Georgia Tech and a Mercer club that figures to spend much of the season in the RPI top 100. Another solid mid-major test looms on Saturday against a potent Lipscomb team before a December 17 home date with defending National Champion North Carolina. Even with a loss to the Tar Heels, Tennessee will likely be 9-2 and ranked heading into SEC play later this month.

Sophomore Grant Williams is a major reasons why Rick Barnes’ rebuild is ahead of schedule. (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

Since his arrival in Knoxville three years ago, Barnes has regularly received criticism for his recruiting. He has countered with dialogue about finding players to fit his system, and the fruits of his efforts to build a nucleus of solid yet unspectacular players appears to be paying off. This is a particularly interesting turn of events for a coach who came from Texas with a reputation of being a better recruiter than floor coach. Instead, Barnes has built a roster of athletic players who have bought into a system stressing defense and rebounding. The Volunteers are turning opponents over on 25.5 percent of their defensive possessions — good for 12th nationally, per KenPom – and despite lacking significant size, are grabbing 37.2 percent of their misses (17th nationally) on the offensive end. These improvements from last season (126th and 82nd, respectively) can largely be attributed to greater experience and familiarity in Barnes’ system and the development of players who have spent multiple seasons learning it.

It is that system that should allow Barnes to continue to build the Tennessee program moving forward. With only one senior on the roster – graduate transfer James Daniel – it is a very young team. Led by sophomore Grant Williams — a player who has a chance to become one of the most prolific scorers in school history by the time his career ends — and junior Admiral Schofield, the Volunteers have four players averaging double-figures. Only Williams, who had no other high-major offers coming out of high school, plays more than 23 minutes per game. Tennessee’s lack of a dominant offensive player will likely prove problematic at times this year, but even the most pessimistic Vols’ fan has to be satisfied with where the program has landed in Barnes’ third season. Given those mild preseason expectations, it is safe to say things are moving ahead of schedule. If they continue to progress, there is an excellent chance that the program’s streak of national rankings will not be the only one broken — a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the Bruce Pearl era could be in the offing.

David Changas (137 Posts)


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