Back in December, I boarded a flight to head home for Christmas that was heading to Charlotte. On the plane I had a conversation with the woman next to me. She said she was heading to Knoxville to watch the Memphis vs Tennessee Basketball match-up later that day and her husband drove to Knoxville the night before. It was weird that she was flying to Charlotte since it’s a three/four hour drive to UT from there, but hey i’m not going to question it. Things got even more interesting when I landed.
One of the more beautiful things of the Charlotte Airport is the Shake Shack they have there where I always grab their famous black&white shake. I took the food back to my gate where I saw a big figure walk by wearing Vols gear and at first I thought nothing of it but then I realized… It was Grant Williams. Yeah, that Grant Williams. 2x SEC POTY Grant Williams. I approached him and asked for a picture like any fan would and asked what he was doing (because why is an NBA player casually traveling around in the middle of the season). He said he was going to surprise the Tennessee team before their game against Memphis.
This experience really got me to thinking how Tennessee has always been known as a football school. Neyland Stadium with 100,000 fans on Saturdays, checkered end zones, legends like Peyton Manning and Phil Fulmer, and Rocky Top playing in the background. I just had this assumption drilled into me, and I’m no Tennessee fan, but I realize I was wrong and if you don’t know by now, Tennessee is no longer a football school. It’s on the cusp of becoming a basketball powerhouse and this isn’t a knock on the football program, but we’re about to see Tennessee basketball take over starting in 2020.
This article focuses on the men’s basketball team, but I have to bring up the Lady Vols because the impact of Legendary Coach Pat Summit simply can’t be ignored. Summit led the Lady Vols to 22 Final Fours (four of which were AIAW players), 34 sweet sixteens, 8 NCAA titles, and 16 SEC championships. The UT women’s program started producing female basketball icons like Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings, Simply put, Summit turned Lady Vol basketball into an elite category of sport’s teams in any sport category.
For most of their history, Tennessee men’s basketball has struggled to find its way. The first scent of success came in the late 60’s. Coach Ray Mears had elevated the program in his tenure seeing plenty of time in the Top 10 and several 20 win seasons. However the, best of the Mears tenure would be coming next. In the mid to late 70s is where we’re enlightened with the Bernie and Ernie Show involving Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld.
— Kris Johnson (@PointForwardPro) June 19, 2017
Ernie and Bernie are two New York Kids who came to Tennessee to play together and brought a serious one-two punch with them. Their tenure together led the Vols to an impressive 5-1 record over Kentucky and some NCAA tournament experience. King would earn All-American honors and Grunfeld would earn SEC honors including Co-Player of the Year honors with King in ’77. Unfortunately for that duo they could never win in the NCAA Tournament.
The Pearl Era
Don Devoe and Jerry Green brought some success in the 80’s and 90’s, but the real story takes off in the mid-2000s when Bruce Pearl came to town. Pearl came to Tennessee in 2005 after taking UW-Milwaukee to a Sweet Sixteen. His coaching style called for a style of play that was full of pace and he brought his winning ways with him too. In his Tennessee tenure the Vols would win less than 20 games only in one season and they won 19 in that season.
To make success consistently like that you need to have coach-able talent and that seems to be where Pearl really made his mark at UT. When he had scholarships, Pearl would consistently land top recruiting classes that poised the Vols for huge expectations. The 2006 recruiting class ranked 6th nationally and 1st in the SEC was headlined by three top-50 players in Duke Crews, Ramar Smith, and Wayne Chism. In ’07 he only had two scholarships, but did manage to sign Top-10 recruit Cameron Tatum. ’08 brought them back to a #6 ranking and third in the SEC with another top-10 signing. In the rest of the Pearl Era he would go on to sign NBA names like Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, and Jordan McRae.
In his first season at the helm, Tennessee had guard C.J. Watson, who would go on to play in the NBA, and the Vols exceeded expectations earning a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Pearl would have Tennessee ranked in every pre-season AP poll in his UT tenure minus the first season and they would get ranked as high as #1 throughout the season. Tennessee would make the NCAA tournament every year in his tenure while being the #2 seed twice and making two Sweet Sixteens and one Elite Eight.
As we can see Pearl made UT notable in this era and most of us probably know how the Pearl Era ended. If you don’t, I’ll give a short summary. Coach was trying to recruit Aaron Craft to Tennessee (yes, that Aaron Craft from Ohio State) and took him to a cookout where he wasn’t supposed to be. Then he told people to keep it on the hush-hush, but word got out and UT did what it had to do and suffered NCAA sanctions because of it. Pearl was let go shortly after and had to serve a three year ban from the NCAA because of it. Now Pearl has landed back at his feet at Auburn.
The Present and The Future… The Rick Barnes Era
After Pearl was released, Tennessee turned to Cuonzo Martin to fix the situation but everyone knows that after a situation like that, things can be bleak. Martin did a good job of keeping Tennessee from falling to the pitfalls of college basketball. However Martin decided to leave Tennessee and headed off to California. A year of Donnie Tyndall and the Tennessee job was open again. This time Tennessee would get a proven coach who can win and they got that in Rick Barnes.
Most basketball fans should know Rick Barnes, but we should still mention the accolades he has earned over his career. In one season at George Mason, he won 20 games then left for Providence. Leading the Friars, he made three NCAA tournament appearances, two NIT tournaments, including a NIT semifinal. Barnes departed to Clemson for four seasons where he made the postseason in every year with three NCAA Tournament appearances and one NIT. The ’96-’97 Clemson team won 20 games and made it to a Sweet Sixteen. At this point, Barnes had made 6 NCAA Tournament appearances if you’re keeping track.
After Clemson, Barnes left for Texas. Let’s name off just a few guys to play for Barnes at Texas:
Damion Jones. P.J. Tucker. LaMarcus Aldridge. AJ Abrams. DJ Augustin. Chris Mihm. Kevin Durant. TJ Ford.
Barnes coached at Texas for 17 seasons where he made 16 NCAA Tournament appearances while rejuvenating the Texas basketball program. One Final Four appearance, two Elite Eights, two Sweet Sixteens, and three Big 12 regular season championships. If you’re still counting, he is now up to 22 Tournament appearances. The work he did at Texas was incredible, but when Texas decided to move on, Tennessee was quick to snag him.
The Three Headed Monster that Only Scratched the Surface
Barnes has been at Tennessee since 2015 and after a couple seasons to build it up, we finally saw a little bit of the potential Barnes saw in his roster. This leads us to the 2017-2019 core group of players that brought great success to the program.
Grant Williams, out of high school, was ranked just around the 200 mark and only had four power-five offers (Rutgers, Boston College, Texas Tech & Tennessee). Little did anyone know that the 6-7 Power Forward would develop into a literal tank of a basketball player who would go on to win not only one but two SEC POTY awards. In Grant’s Junior campaign, he would average 18.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.2 APG, and 2.6 Stocks (STL+BLKs) while shooting 56% from the floor and 81% from the line. Speaking of literal tanks, there were probably two other people in college basketball who were as physically imposing as Grant. One was Purdue’s Isaac Haas, but he was 7’2 and 300 lbs, and the other was teammate Admiral Schofield.
Umm, whoa? Tennessee’s Grant Williams just took flight. pic.twitter.com/kjTAc7z9zn
— Alec Lewis (@alec_lewis) December 30, 2017
Schofield looked like he belonged on a football field rather than a basketball court with his 6’6′ 245 pound frame, but don’t let it fool you…he could hoop.
Hailing from Zion Il, Schofield, like Williams, wasn’t highly recruited. His only other power five offer was from West Virginia. He was 6’5′ and 210 lbs in high school. Schofield had an impact for the Vols starting in his freshman season, but he consistently improved to the point where he averaged 16.5 PPG, 6.1 RPG, and 2 APG in his Senior year. This was the same year Williams averaged 18-7.5-3.2. Admiral would earn a pair of ALL-SEC team awards in his Tennessee career with both the first and second team.
Schofield and Williams brought a grit and toughness to Barnes’s Volunteers team that would become an identity for them. The third part of the three headed monster was the counter to the two prior mentioned. Jordan Bone was a 6’3 Guard who had blazing speed. Ranked just inside the top-150, Bone had a few offers but opted to stay home to play at Tennessee. Compared to the other two, Bone liked to push the pace out in transition and get things going early in the shot clock which added a different dimension to the Tennessee offense.
Jordan Bone faked out everyone. pic.twitter.com/gt7EKFihgY
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 24, 2019
The two year stretch of this core accomplished some pretty amazing things, but most importantly they brought respect back to Tennessee. To be considered the best, you got to beat some of the best and let’s run through some of the impressive wins this squad pulled off.
They beat Kentucky 3 out of 4 times, Purdue (who was led by Carson Edwards, Isaac Haas, and Vincent Edwards), Bob Huggins’s West Virginia, Iowa, and a Gonzaga team that had Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Kilian Tillie, Zach Norvell Jr., and many others. These wins are important because it establishes a certain pedigree, but winning the 2017-2018 SEC regular season and conference tournament championships were the icing on the cake.
The only complaint with this team is that they couldn’t quite win enough in the Tournament as they lost to Purdue and a Loyola Chicago team who went on a small run…to the Final Four.
The Exponential Future
This past year, the shortened season Vols had a lot of growing to do. However, there were some bright spots the main one being Yves Pons. To talk a little about what Pons brings to a game here is our staff writer Aram Cannuscio.
“Yves Pons is an absolute menace around the rim who continues to get better year after year. The progression in his shot as well as in his all around offensive game, are great indicators that he could become a great asset for an NBA team in the short future. Pons’s senior year will be one that Tennessee fans should be very excited to see. The expectations are high for the young man.”
They relied heavily on freshmen Josiah Jordan-James and Santiago Vescovi to make an impact and they had their freshman struggles. Remember earlier when I mentioned all of the names that Rick Barnes recruited to Texas?
Well, now its time to learn the names for Tennessee.
Yves Pons has transformed his game pic.twitter.com/6fXLFEqHzN
— Austin Brown (@Austin_Vols) November 19, 2019
This 2020-2021 Vols team features a nationally recognized recruiting class. Incoming freshman Jaden Springer (#16 in 2020) who can score at all three levels and with power, Keon Johnson (#19 in 2020) who is also a five star recruit, and Corey Walker a top 100 recruit. They also will get an impact from Victor Bailey Jr. who was a transfer from Oregon who is a legit sniper and a grad transfer in E.J. Anosike who averaged 15.7 PPG and 11.6 RPG at Sacred Heart this past season while being named First Team All-NEC.
I haven’t even mentioned that Tennessee brings back their leading scorer from last year in Jordan Fulkerson. This team has the potential to go 10 deep effectively and the potential is out of this world. To lay out a quick potential 10 man depth chart for you, this is what Tennessee is looking at for this year.
If you thought that the Grant Williams – Admiral Schofield – Jordan Bone Tennessee teams were noteworthy, then get ready for this team because they were only scratching the surface of what Tennessee basketball can become. To let you know on what to expect I let our other writer Pat McMahon discuss the potential of the 2020-2021 Tennessee Vols.
“After a down year in 2020, the Vols have a loaded roster heading into the 2021 season and will return to national relevance. Getting Yves Pons back was a huge gift for Rick Barnes’ squad, as Pons is an absolute terror on the court and will anchor the Volunteers defense while also being a threat to score inside and out. John Fulkerson is a gifted post scorer and a really good shooter, and is the perfect compliment to Pons in the front-court.
The backcourt is super talented as well and extremely deep. Sophomore guards Santiago Vescovi and Josiah Jordan-James can both handle the point or play off ball. Vescovi is an outstanding shooter, and Jordan-James is a really strong perimeter defender. Joining them on the wing is a pair of five star freshman, Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, both of whom are extremely talented, athletic, and potential first round draft picks. The Vols have the luxury of a couple of veteran transfers coming off the bench in former Oregon guard Vic Bailey, and Sacred Heart grad transfer EJ Anosike, who averaged a double-double last season.
On paper this is one of the most talented teams Rick Barnes has ever had in Knoxville, and undoubtedly the deepest. To me, they’re a legit Final Four contender and deserving of a top 10 pre-season ranking.”
The glory of this is that it doesn’t just end there. Barnes has already began to put in work on the 2021 class as well as he has landed in-state gem Kennedy Chandler. Chandler was one of those guys the G-League was trying to pry away along with the college basketball blue bloods trying to get their hands on him. If things fall a certain way and Tennessee can retain most of their guards, we could be looking at one of the most talented backcourts in recent memory. This doesn’t even include all the potential recruits that we could see come to Knoxville in the coming months, years, etc…
The future certainly looks bright at Rocky Top and we could see the Orange and White become a staple for basketball in the 2020s just like how Florida was known for the 2000s and Villanova and UNC ran the 2010s. Vols hoops fans can rejoice because Rick Barnes is quietly building a dynasty in Knoxville and don’t be surprised when it all comes to fruition sooner rather than later.