KNOXVILLE – With the loss of four starters, Tennessee men’s basketball has reached a pivotal juncture under coach Rick Barnes.
Player attrition notwithstanding, Barnes didn’t sound this spring like he was considering a U-turn in the program’s evolution after winning 31 games last season and reaching the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament.
“We are going to work as hard as we can to take this program to another level,” he said. “I want to consistently be one of the best basketball programs in the country.”
Barnes expressed such optimism before juniors Grant Williams and Jordan Bone cemented their intentions to stay in the NBA Draft, thereby forgoing their final season of collegiate eligibility. Their departure, along with the loss of seniors Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander, creates a huge void in UT’s starting five, not to mention its production and leadership.
The possibility of such losses has been replaced by the stark reality of dealing with the aftermath.
In the third of five-part series regarding the state of Tennessee’s five major sports, here’s a look at men’s basketball:
More than math: Crunching the numbers regarding the aforementioned four players suffices in appreciating their departure.
Williams (18.8 points per game), Schofield (16.5) and Bone (13.5) were UT’s top three scorers. Williams (7.5), Alexander (6.6) and Schofield (6.1) were the top three rebounders. Bone led in assists with 215 and Williams, a 6-foot-7 forward, was second with 117.
Still, those statistics don’t adequately measure the total value of those players. For instance, all four invested considerable time and effort toward their personal development, thereby promoting a program staple of Barnes’ four years as coach.
Williams was a two-time SEC player of year. South Carolina coach Frank Martin referenced Williams’ stature in complimenting his less-heralded pursuits.
“When the player of the year in this league is the best screen setter, that’s tough,” he said.
Florida coach Mike White likely had all four players in mind in formulating his view of the Vols last season.
“Watching Tennessee puts it all in perspective to what a really, really good team looks like,” he said, “and what you hope to be.”
Whoever fills UT’s stat sheet next season, the Vols will be better served if those players also continue the trend of being the team’s hardest, most selfless workers. And that work starts during the offseason.
Restocking the Roster: The Vols have been busy this spring, signing 6-9 freshman forward Olivier Nkamhoua and adding 7-foot center Uros Plavsic, a transfer from Arizona State who attended Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga when moving to the U.S. from Serbia in October of 2017.
On Tuesday, UT announced the signing of guard Victor Bailey, a transfer from Oregon. Despite now being at a full complement of 13 scholarship players, the Vols remain in the hunt for 6-10 post Kerry Blackshear Jr., a coveted graduate transfer from Virginia Tech.
When Kim English was hired this spring as an assistant to fill the opening left by Rob Lanier’s departure, Barnes stressed that he had never hired a coach solely based on recruiting. Regardless, the Vols’ immediate needs will be best served by English’s salesmanship and he intends to cast a wide net on UT’s behalf.
“Recruiting to me goes back to my three core areas as a basketball coach,” he said. “I’m from Baltimore, so we’re going to be heavily involved in Baltimore and Washington D.C. I played prep school in New England, so I have great connections there. I played college in Missouri, so Kansas City and St. Louis are nearby.
“I played for the (NBA’s) Pistons and have great relationships in Detroit. I worked in Oklahoma, I played basketball in Europe and South America and I feel good about my authentic relationships in all of those places.”
* * *
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He can be reached at email@example.com