Tennessee basketball: a 2020-21 preview

After the longest year in human history, we have returned. Basketball is around the corner, amazingly enough. In a normal year, you would have seen this preview at least three weeks ago, if not further back, and you would already know a bit about the 2020-21 Tennessee basketball team by way of them having played two or three games. That’s not a huge sample size, and yet: it is larger than zero games, which is what we’re going off of right now.

All we can do is analyze what may or may not be there. What we know is that Tennessee returns roughly 70% of production from last year’s roster, including the Defensive Player of the Year and All-SEC John Fulkerson. They add two five-star recruits to the roster, along with suddenly-forgotten four-star Corey Walker. Understandably, this particular Tennessee roster has created the most anticipated Tennessee basketball season in years, perhaps even more anticipated than the final Grant Williams/Admiral Schofield run. 

Of course, it’s worth remembering how far we’ve all come in this year alone. When I last wrote about Tennessee basketball on this site, it was about a game that didn’t actually end up happening: the SEC second-round fixture against Alabama. The night before, Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID test forced the NBA to postpone their season for over four months, and a similar postponement simply wasn’t possible for college basketball. It felt like a matter of time building up to the Thursday afternoon announcement that the NCAA Tournament was done.

Here we are, eight months and 18 days since Tennessee last played basketball. It’s easy to forget that the last Tennessee road game played was an out-of-nowhere 81-73 win over SEC champion Kentucky. (Don’t check the score of the Auburn home finale played four days later, the last sporting event I attended in 2020.) Before we get into 2020-21’s expectations, let’s go over a brief reminder of what went down in 2019-20:

  • Tennessee started 5-0, then 7-1, with wins over Washington and VCU. By the end of the season, these wins looked pretty forgettable, but at the time of each game, they were really important. With a six-man rotation and a makeshift roster, Tennessee flew to Toronto and dismantled Top 25 Washington for a full 40 minutes; in a tournament in Florida, they battled VCU to the wire and got a Lamonte Turner buzzer-beater to pull off a huge win. At the time, both wins looked to be a key part of a Tennessee NCAA Tournament resume, alongside a close loss to future ACC champion Florida State. Washington and VCU would finish their seasons at 15-17 and 18-13, nowhere near the NCAA Tournament. Still, Tennessee’s defense looked genuinely great, holding their first six opponents and eight of their first nine to 0.87 PPP or lower offensively.
  • Tennessee lost four out of their next five games, and in the only win, Lamonte Turner’s career ended. Turner battled shoulder issues during his shortened senior season and shot horribly, but once we all found out how bad the pain was, it became a lot more understandable. Suddenly, Tennessee had nothing resembling a true point guard at all, and offense became an excruciating thing to watch. Tennessee posted four games of 0.8 points per possession or lower offensively, their worst bad-game rate since 2011-12, the first Cuonzo season.
  • Enter Santiago Vescovi and an erratic SEC run. Last year’s SEC was very bad, and I don’t think that any member of the conference would’ve progressed past the Sweet Sixteen. It makes sense that Tennessee wouldn’t have found any real consistency. That said, they were simply more exciting by way of Vescovi’s deep range, fascinating passes, and extreme offensive volatility. In one three-game sample, Vescovi went from scoring 20 points to 7 to 14, and in his first game in a Tennessee uniform, he committed nine turnovers. For a half-season freshman, consistency wasn’t his thing, but you’d hope he’ll find more of that in a full season.
  • Some good wins, some close good losses, and some horrific performances. For a team with so little returning from the previous season, Tennessee was always going to have consistency issues. But even they might have been shocked by how inconsistent they were. Bart Torvik’s Game Score metric measures a team’s performance on a 0-to-100 scale. In the same season, Tennessee posted six 95-or-higher rated performances alongside three games rated a 21 or lower. Meaning: in certain games, Tennessee looked like a top 15 team; in others, they looked like a bottom-half Conference USA squad. Not once in the final five games did Tennessee hold their opponent below a point per possession offensively. In the season’s final week, Tennessee posted wins over Florida and Kentucky, two NCAA Tournament teams…and then promptly lost at home by 22 points to Auburn, the least-good of the three.

Using that as a refresher, we can be confident of some things heading into 2020-21. Tennessee brings back a lot of talent from last year’s roster and a lot of young players with high levels of potential. They’ll get a full season to grow together, and even in a strange pandemic season, hopes are high. Preseason statistics models are a little lower on Tennessee, simply because their 2019-20 was kind of disappointing, finishing 68th on KenPom and 61st on Torvik, both the lowest of any school ranked in either site’s 2020-21 Top 20. National experts seem to generally have the Vols somewhere between 8th and 14th, which feels fair. Either way, fans are within their right to expect great things from this group and great things from the $5 million man heading the operation. They’ll have a lot of questions to resolve from here to March, but the nice thing about having as much talent as Tennessee has is an extended timeline to figure out the answers to those questions.

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