Tennessee basketball: Is 2021 the 'next year' Vols fans have waited for?
In the 1950s, there was a common saying about baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers. The team of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider always looked competitive and found itself near the top of the National League. But until 1955, when the Dodgers won the World Series, they always found a way to come up just short. Dodgers fans routinely called, “Wait ’til next year.”
Is this next year in Knoxville? Coach Rick Barnes is entering his 6th season in Knoxville. Two years ago, Barnes had one of the best Tennessee teams in memory and won 31 games en route to a crushing NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 loss to Purdue. Last season was a step back for the Vols, as UT went 17-14. But with several significant returnees and a freshman class that 247sports ranked 4th-best in the nation, there is plenty of reason to suspect that this is next year for the Vols, who open the season ranked No. 12.
If there’s any doubt, ask the SEC media, which picked UT to top Kentucky for the SEC title in 2020-21. Can UT turn preseason hype into postseason success?
Senior forward Josh Fulkerson. Fulkerson isn’t athletic or flashy, but he’s a crafty post presence who averaged 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game last season. Even better is that he converted 61.2% of his shots, one of the top marks in the SEC. Fulkerson was a first-team All-SEC pick by the media. The other obvious candidate was senior forward Yves Pons, who was a second-team choice by the media. Pons is a standout defender who also managed 10.8 points and 5.4 boards per game.
UT signed a pair of top-20 guards in the freshman class: IMG Academy product Jaden Springer and in-state scorer Keon Johnson. It’s safe to say that both figure to feature prominently for the Vols, and it would be a stretch to pick one over the other.
Tennessee is versatile and has a tremendous amount of scoring punch. The Vols did lose seniors Jordan Bowman and Lamonte Turner, but they return not only Fulkerson and Pons, but sophomores Santiago Vescovi (10.7 points per game) and Josiah-Jordan James (7.4 points per game). Sacred Heart transfer E.J. Anosike is a wily veteran to add to the mix, and freshman forward Corey Walker could be yet another contributor. UT’s first 8 players are multi-position types, all of whom can score.
Rebounding has been a concern for UT. Fulkerson is big but not terribly athletic. Anosike has a great history, but the NEC isn’t the SEC. The rest of the Vols are more scorers and slashers than backboard crashers. It could end up as a big issue.
Regular season outlook
UT has a 7-game pre-conference schedule: 6 home games and a neutral-site matchup with Gonzaga in Indianapolis on Dec. 2. They will also play Kansas on Jan 30. Gonzaga and Kansas figure to each be tall orders, but there’s no reason UT should do worse than 6-2 out of the conference. The Vols are favored to win the SEC, and a 14-4 kind of season seems likely. Games at Kentucky and Florida are likely to be tough, and a home loss or 2 feels almost inevitable. A 20-6 season would likely leave UT sitting slightly ahead of where it began the season, 12th in the AP poll and 14th in the coaches poll.
This is the thing. Rick Barnes and Tennessee are formidable. They’re deserved favorites for the league title. But neither Barnes nor the Vols have done well in March. UT claimed a shared regular-season title in 2018, but the Vols’ last SEC Tournament title came in 1979. UT has never been to a Final Four, and in fact has only been to the Elite Eight once, under Bruce Pearl in 2010. Barnes went to the Final Four once, in 2003 at Texas, but he’s 24-24 for his career in the NCAA Tournament.
Being a preseason favorite is a rare position for Tennessee. The question is can the Vols translate that into postseason success? Much like the Brooklyn Dodgers, Vol fans have every reason to think that this year is the often-hoped for “next year.” There’s no reason UT can’t have an Elite Eight or a Final Four season. But will they?
20-6 regular season (14-4, SEC regular season championship), SEC Tournament finals loss, Elite 8, 25-8