How Did We Get Here?
On the surface, Rick Barnes is a coach who brings stability to a program that's badly in need of it. When Bruce Pearl left town in 2011, Tennessee went out and hired Cuonzo Martin from Missouri State. Much like Kevin O'Neill (whom Tennessee hired away from Marquette back in 1994), Martin was in his late 30s and viewed as a rising star in the coaching profession. And -- also like O'Neill -- Martin stayed three years before making what was a lateral move at best, taking the Cal job. So then, Tennessee went out and hired Donnie Tyndall -- knowing that he was under NCAA investigation, but allegedly not knowing the full extent of the violations. When it became apparent that Tyndall was facing severe sanctions, Tennessee didn't have much choice but to let him go after one year.
So in that respect, hiring Barnes -- who, at 61, is probably at his last coaching stop, and who has no history with the NCAA in 28 years as a head coach -- makes perfect sense. But this kind of hire is not without risk. South Carolina once hired Dave Odom, who won at Wake Forest (though not as big as Barnes did at Texas), at age 58, and Odom turned South Carolina into a perennial NIT team but never really threatened to take them beyond that. You have to wonder, is Barnes at Tennessee to redeem himself after Texas soured on him? Or is he at Tennessee to retire? If the former, I could see the so-called "retread" hire working here; but if it's the latter, this may not work as well as people think. It's why, of the four offseason coaching hires in the SEC, this is the one I like the least. And yes, you could say some of the same things about Ben Howland, but the cases are entirely different. Howland had been out of the game for two years and wanted back in so badly that he was willing to move from Santa Barbara to Starkville, Mississippi. Barnes was out of the game for approximately two days, and I'd be remiss to point out that Knoxville is three hours from his hometown in North Carolina.
What's more, the Vols are about to start feeling the effects of what are essentially three straight lost recruiting classes. The 2013 recruiting class looked all right at the time, but all but one player left the program when Martin did. Martin's entire 2014 class got out of their letters of intent when he left as well, leaving Tyndall to assemble a scrap-heap recruiting class (the sort of quantity-over-quality class that recruiting rankings tend to overrate); what's more, that seven-man class included two jucos who will be out of eligibility after this season and three freshmen who are already out of the program. And Tyndall's lone full recruiting class was poorly-rated; Barnes did step in and add some recruits of his own, but it's hardly the infusion of talent that this program needs.
Having a fairly decent senior class this season, along with a junior in Robert Hubbs who's a potential star (even if the odds that he'll ever live up to that potential aren't looking so great), ensures that the Vols probably won't fall off a cliff in 2015-16. But beyond that, Barnes is going to have his work cut out for him.
When projecting a team for the upcoming season, one of the most difficult things to predict is the impact of the star player on last year's team vs. the role players. In some cases, like Vanderbilt (both returning) or Arkansas (both leaving), the trajectory is obvious -- though you can disagree on just how much those teams are going to rise or fall. The tough calls come about when these two trends point in the opposite direction. In Tennessee's case, five of the top six players from last season return, plus a freshman who showed some promise before getting hurt. But the one player who doesn't return is Josh Richardson, the unquestioned star player on last year's Tennessee team. Richardson led the SEC in minutes played last year and was good enough to be named first team All-SEC and was a second-round NBA Draft pick.
And, well, in spite of Richardson's heroic efforts, Tennessee only managed to go 16-16 and finished 10th in the SEC. What's more, Richardson's supporting cast last year consisted mostly of upperclassmen. So, yeah, last year's Tennessee team was an experienced team with a legitimate star player. That... doesn't really seem to bode too well for this year now that Richardson is out of the picture.
Tennessee's stats from 2014-15 showed both Donnie Tyndall's usual imprint, leading the SEC in offensive rebounding, lots of turnovers on both ends of the floor -- both hallmarks of Tyndall's coaching style. They also showed the limitations imposed both by a lack of size and talent: the Vols didn't shoot particularly well, they were rather average on the defensive glass and were pretty awful at preventing you from scoring if they didn't turn you over. Tyndall's approach seemed to work fairly well given the limitations of his team, and Barnes' typical approach couldn't be more night-and-day different. Where Tyndall employed a nasty zone defense that forced a lot of turnovers, Barnes employs a turnover-allergic man-to-man defense (the turnover allergy, by the way, also extends to the offensive end with Barnes teams.)
Last year's Texas team ranked #2 in the country in eFG% defense -- and #350 in defensive TO% (and for reference, there are 350 teams in Division I.) Of course, Barnes also had Myles Turner, Cameron Ridley, Jonathan Holmes, and Prince Ibeh -- all 6'8" or taller and all adept at swatting shots -- at his disposal last year. It will be interesting to see if Barnes adapts his approach to fit the talent on hand -- or if he just sticks with his normal approach on a team that, on paper, seems better-suited for Tyndall's helter-skelter approach.
|Player||Year||Height||Weight||247 Rating||247 Rank||MPG||PPG||RPG||APG||BPG||SPG||WS||Notes|
|Kevin Punter||Sr.||6'2"||190||0.88||3* (#4 JC SG)||31.0||10.3||2.1||1.9||0.2||1.6||2.3|
|Derek Reese||Sr.||6'7"||230||0.843||3* (#49 SF)||25.3||6.0||5.3||0.9||0.3||0.7||1.8|
|Robert Hubbs III||Jr.||6'4"||207||0.9911||5* (#4 SG)||24.8||7.2||2.9||0.9||0.1||0.5||1.6|
|Detrick Mostella||Soph.||6'1"||175||0.9539||4* (#25 SG)||11.7||3.4||0.9||0.5||0.0||0.3||-0.3|
|Lamonte Turner||Fr.||6'1"||190||0.9068||3* (#25 PG)||sitting out 2015-16|
|Shembari Phillips||Fr.||6'2"||190||0.8448||3* (#68 SG)|
While Richardson is gone, everybody else in the backcourt returns. (That's counting Derek Reese, who at 6'7", 230 is one of the biggest players on the roster -- but he's also listed as a guard.)
Kevin Punter is the top returnee in the backcourt, at least in terms of production from last season -- he ranks second among Tennessee returnees in both points and assists, and first in minutes. A natural shooting guard, Punter can handle the point if needed -- which may be the case as the Vols' only true point guard is freshman Lamonte Turner.
What's more, the Vols do have a talented player at the two in Robert Hubbs. The former five-star recruit hasn't really lived up to his advance billing in two years in Knoxville -- a shoulder injury in his freshman year had something to do with that. It sometimes takes top recruits a year to adjust to the college game, and Hubbs' injury may have set that timetable back even further -- last year effectively was his freshman year, though some mismanagement by former coach Cuonzo Martin probably cost him a redshirt year. Last year Hubbs, like basically the rest of the Vols, seemed to defer to Josh Richardson; if Hubbs can step up and play to his potential that would take Tennessee a long way.
Derek Reese, though listed as a guard on the roster, is really more of a forward -- he ranked second on the team in rebounds last season. That could be a function of the Vols not really having any better options up front last year -- Reese did play more like a guard on the 2013-14 team that had Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon to play up front. At the same time, the roster realities that forced Reese into playing down low last year are likely to be present again (more on that in a minute), so Reese probably won't see a lot of time playing in the backcourt.
Devon Baulkman and Detrick Mostella look like the depth in the backcourt; Baulkman was Tennessee's top three-point shooter (38.2%) in a reserve role last year, but his shooting percentage dropped to 31.4% in SEC play -- granted, in a very small sample. Mostella really struggled with the transition to the college game as a freshman, but has potential to get better -- but he'll continue to come off the bench until he improves. Like with Hubbs, getting Mostella to play to his potential would be a big boost for Barnes' team.
Freshman Lamonte Turner, a late addition who reclassified from the 2016 recruiting class, was a Barnes recruit and has potential; however, Turner failed to qualify and will sit out this year. Fellow freshman Shembari Phillips was a Tyndall recruit who's not likely to play a big role; neither is invited walk-on Brad Woodson, although Woodson is rumored to be a good shooter.
|Player||Year||Height||Weight||247 Rating||247 Rank||MPG||PPG||RPG||APG||BPG||SPG||WS||Notes|
|Willie Carmichael III||14.8||3.0||2.3||0.3||0.4||0.2||0.6|
|Armani Moore||Sr.||6'4"||217||0.8556||3* (#43 SG)||30.9||10.3||6.8||2.2||1.2||1.4||2.6|
|Ray Kasongo||Soph.||6'8"||245||0.87||3* (#13 JC PF)||JUCO transfer|
|Jabari McGhee||Fr.||6'5"||207||0.8472||3* (#63 PF)||12.9||4.4||3.8||0.0||0.1||0.4||0.4|
|Admiral Schofield||Fr.||6'5"||240||0.8387||3* (#56 SF)|
|Kyle Alexander||Fr.||6'9"||215||0.8329||3* (#31 C)|
It's honestly saying quite a bit about Tennessee that Armani Moore is their best returning player from last season. Moore can be a useful role player -- but, well, he's functionally a 6'4" power forward. And if your best player is a 6'4" power forward... well, you're going to have issues in the SEC. (I should note, though, that Tennessee evidently switched from measuring its players with shoes on to measuring them with shoes off as it seems every holdover shrunk an inch or two from what they were listed on the roster last season.)
All of this is not to say that a player like Armani Moore is not useful, but that a guy who's 6'4" and playing inside is necessarily going to be limited in SEC play. It's also a function of the fact that Tennessee's front court, both last year and this year, is dangerously thin and inexperienced. Moore probably shouldn't play the four, but Tyndall last year didn't have much choice -- particularly once Jabari McGhee, the other returnee up front, got injured early in the season. McGhee flashed some potential early last year, but like Moore is undersized to play down low in the SEC.
The Vols did have a couple of freshmen with some length last year, but they're both gone -- 6'8" Willie Carmichael transferred to Western Kentucky and 6'10" Tariq Owens transferred to St. John's. To tell you how much Tennessee is going to miss Owens, Owens' father reportedly said his son was concerned he'd be recruited over, and the Vols may in fact have already done that with juco transfer Ray Kasongo; Kasongo averaged 6.0 ppg and 4.9 rpg as a freshman at Southern Idaho, one of the top junior college programs in the country, and should at least be a big body. Alexander is another Owens, a project big man who may be able to contribute down the road but probably won't add much as a freshman. Admiral Schofield, like Moore and McGhee, doesn't have a lot of length but is a wide body.
|11/16||at Georgia Tech|
|11/27||vs. George Washington (Barclays Center Classic)|
|11/28||Barclays Center Classic (vs. Cincinnati or Nebraska)|
|12/19||vs. Gonzaga (Seattle, WA)|
|12/22||East Tennessee State|
|1/16||at Mississippi State|
|2/24||at South Carolina|
The non-conference schedule has some challenging games, with a road trip to Butler and a virtual road game against Gonzaga in Seattle, plus the Barclays Center Classic featuring George Washington, Cincinnati, and Nebraska, and road trips to power-conference bottom-feeders Georgia Tech and TCU. Other than that, the rest of the schedule consists of very winnable games -- it's a definite sign of trouble if the Vols go into January with more than four or five losses.
While the SEC's new scheduling rules mean that Kentucky and Vandy -- perhaps the SEC's two best teams -- are on the Vols' schedule twice each, the Vols also get rebuilding Arkansas and potentially improved (but potentially not improved) Auburn and South Carolina twice.
Rick Barnes' first year is going to be different from Avery Johnson's first year at Alabama, or Kim Anderson's rebuilding project at Missouri: while all three project to finish toward the bottom of the SEC, Barnes' squad has less upside than the other two. Tennessee is somewhat experienced, but the seniors are players we pretty much know are replacement-level SEC players and the freshmen aren't terribly promising. The experience level reduces the chance that Tennessee will have a complete collapse, but there's also less of a chance of a surprise.
It also really increases the pressure on Barnes on the recruiting trail. Thanks to all the instability at the top, Tennessee basically had two lost recruiting classes in 2013 and 2014, and Donnie Tyndall's lone recruiting class in 2015 does not appear very strong. There is a very real concern that the talent level after the current senior class graduates is not going to support even a mediocre SEC team; the Vols really lack size other than Kasongo and Alexander.
That ongoing issue is really what's limiting Tennessee's potential. Barnes is known as a defensive coach, but his defenses rely a lot on having a post presence to rebound and challenge shots and there really isn't any of that on this team. With such a limited roster, it's hard to see Tennessee finishing outside the bottom four of the SEC; there isn't much chance of a complete collapse but there also isn't a lot of upside, either.