The Tennessee Volunteers are off to a ridiculous start to the 2018-19 season. They enter Saturday’s game against Alabama with a 15-1 record and are No. 3 in the AP Poll (though that should change next week).
Coach Rick Barnes has his team looking like the class of the SEC, and right now, it’s not even close. While the rest of the conference deals with ups and downs, the Vols have been steadily dominating their competition.
Could this be the year that the Vols go all the way and cut down the nets at the Final Four in Minneapolis? Absolutely, and here are 10 big reasons why:
1. Grant Williams
Williams — the reigning SEC Player of the Year — would be the first one to tell you he doesn’t belong at No. 1 on this list. However, he’s the guy that makes the Vols go on both ends of the court.
Sometimes he might not have the best game, but his impact is undeniable. He’s averaging 18.8 points and 7.8 rebounds a night, which leads the team. He also averages an impressive 3.9 assists for a big man and 1.6 blocks.
He’s not the flashiest player, but he still has post moves that leave defenders wondering what just happened:
— Trey Wallace (@TreyWallace_) January 16, 2019
He does plenty of work above the rim, too. Just look at this “get out of my way” dunk he threw down against the Gators last weekend:
Get out of the way, Grant Williams is coming through. pic.twitter.com/82jyOB3QbH
— More Important Issues (@More_Issues) January 13, 2019
Williams is must-see TV, and the way he makes everyone else on the court better makes him a special player.
2. Rick Barnes won’t let them lose focus
What was the first thing Barnes did after Tennessee’s 19-point win over Arkansas on Tuesday night? He ripped the team’s performance in the second half.
Rick Barnes: Tonight I did something I don't usually do. I walked straight off the floor (after the game), went in the locker room and told them I didn't think we were locked in.
— @GrantRamey (@GrantRamey) January 16, 2019
Rick Barnes told his players "I'll be disappointed if you don't walk out of here disappointed" with the way they finished the game today. Lost second half. Got outplayed after halftime.
— @GrantRamey (@GrantRamey) January 16, 2019
Now, Barnes isn’t some no-fun, military-style coach. Yes, he’s hard on his team, but only because he expects the best from them. He seems to have a great relationship with his players — especially Williams and Admiral Schofield, and that’s the reason he can say things like this to the media.
Barnes has seen it all over his years as a coach, so he’ll have his squad ready to face whatever challenge might surface moving forward.
3. Six starters and a deep bench
No, the Vols aren’t playing with an extra guy on the court. The “six starters” thing refers to Lamonte Turner, who is finally healthy and gives the Vols a dynamic player coming off the bench.
In his seven games, Turner has averaged 23.3 minutes, 11.1 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists. Turner, Schofield, Williams, Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden and Kyle Alexander all average at least 10 points a game, and any one of them is capable of going off on any given night.
Add in the contributions of guys like Yves Pons and John Fulkerson off the bench and this Tennessee team can go eight or nine guys deep. That’s the sort of rotation you need to be able to compete for an NCAA title.
4. The Admiral
Most teams needs at least two superstars to compete for the title, so it’s no surprise that Williams has a talented running mate in senior G Admiral Schofield. Schofield can do it all — averaging 17.7 points, 6.3 boards and 2.8 assists per game while leading the squad in 3-pointers made.
The way Schofield and Williams play off each other, on the court and in press conferences, makes them so fun to watch. They’re one of the best dynamic duos in college basketball, and if they continue to play this well, the Vols will cruise to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
5. More experience than Duke
The Blue Devils are the No. 1 team in the country, but that is likely to change after they lost Monday at home to unranked Syracuse. Coach K’s squad has an insane level of talent, with superstar freshmen Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Tre Jones and Cam Reddish leading the way.
However, as we saw against the Orange, that talent isn’t as developed as Tennessee’s. The Vols have seen it all in the past couple of years, and they’ll know how to get in the heads of the young stars should they cross paths in the NCAA Tournament.
6. Battle tested
The Vols are 15-1, with their one loss coming to then-No. 2 Kansas in overtime on a neutral court. They also have a win over then-No. 1 Gonzaga in Arizona and on the road against Memphis.
Now that they’re in the SEC portion of their schedule, there will be more tough tests, including road trips to face ranked Kentucky, Ole Miss and Auburn teams in February and March. However, they can draw on the experience they’ve already had during the nonconference portion of their schedule and will be a difficult team to beat, even away from Knoxville.
7. Jordan Bone
Point guards are super important especially come tournament time. The Vols have a very underrated point guard in junior Jordan Bone.
Bone has come into his own this year, starting all 16 games and averaging career-highs in points (13.4) and assists (6.3). He gets the Vols’ offense started and is just as good shooting as he is distributing.
As long as Bone keeps playing like this, teams are really going to struggle to stop the offense. He’s the perfect complement to Williams and Schofield and is looking like he’ll put up a career year.
8. They’re ridiculously efficient on offense
We’ve already described the players and depth above, but permit me to nerd out for a minute. In KenPom’s ratings, the Vols are the No. 2 team in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency. What is adjusted offensive efficiency, you ask? It’s the amount of points a team would score per 100 possessions against an average Division I defense.
The Vols, per KenPom’s ratings, would average 122.0 points per 100 possessions, second only to Gonzaga (124.4). That basically means they can score at will, and they’ve proven that so far this year, eclipsing the 100-point plateau twice and the 90-point mark six times.
9. They should be a No. 1 seed
The way the Vols are playing, they certainly look like one of the four best teams in the country. Therefore, when the NCAA Tournament selection committee meets to fill out the March Madness field, Tennessee should have a good case for one of the four No. 1 seeds.
Why is that important? Seven times in the past 10 years, one of the four No. 1 seeds has won it all (including 2017 North Carolina and 2018 Villanova). Yes, March Madness is famous for its thrilling upsets, but when it comes to the Final Four, the best teams in the country usually shine on the biggest stage.
10. They still have room to improve
Yes, that’s a scary thought, but it’s true. Jordan Bowden has scored 20, 20, 17 and 19 points in the Vols’ four SEC games after not reaching that mark at all during nonconference play.
Meanwhile, Kyle Alexander continues to thrive in a larger role and Lamonte Turner is still rounding into form after returning from a shoulder injury. Yes, there’s a lot of reason for optimism in Knoxville these days, and if this team stays healthy, a trip to Minneapolis for the program’s first Final Four is a very realistic goal.