2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season preview

What are realistic expectations for these newcomers?

I think it probably makes sense to cover the recruits first, followed by the lone transfer in Justin Powell. Tennessee brings in an astounding seven new freshmen, all on scholarship, alongside the pickup from Auburn who can shoot the lights out. The freshmen are roughly broken into three categories: Significant Contributor, Possible Rotation Member, and Redshirt? Redshirt.

Significant Contributor

Kennedy Chandler. This is painfully obvious, of course. Chandler is probably going to start from opening night to whenever the season ends. This already comes with the territory of being the 8th-ranked recruit in your class by 247, but it’s especially true when the position you play is perhaps the position with the highest amount of need at your school. It’s not irrational to think Chandler averages 30 minutes per game this season, particularly with the backup options at point being a true freshman (Zeigler), a ball-handling 2-guard (Powell), and a guy who has shown essentially no desire to drive to the basket (Vescovi).

I guess what I’m getting at here is that Chandler’s situation is somewhat unique for a star freshman: you get to play for what would’ve been a top 25-30ish team regardless of you being there and you don’t really have to battle anyone else for your role. Jerry Meyer claims Chandler is not a shoot-first player, which is fine, but pretty much everyone (Meyer included) says Chandler is an elite ball-handler and a fantastic passer. Both are things Tennessee has needed since Jordan Bone exited campus a year early, and considering the list of other great passers on the Tennessee roster is, uh…small, Chandler could rack up several double-doubles this year. Chandler’s jumper has reportedly improved immensely over the last year, which would obviously be a huge boon for a Tennessee roster that needs more shooting.

I do worry about Chandler’s size somewhat. He’s added ten pounds in the last year, but this is still a 170-pound player with only one summer of college weight room training. As far as the scouts are concerned, he’s an excellent on-ball defender, but in a sport that values the ball screen at an all-time high I worry that he could get swallowed up by larger screeners if he’s not thinking a step or two ahead. Hopefully I’m wrong here and even if it is an issue, one would imagine the staff figures out a fix by March.

For each player in this set, we’ll make three stats predictions and revisit them at year’s end to see how many of them were accurate.

Three Predictions:

  1. Chandler averages at least 30 minutes per game;
  2. Chandler isn’t Tennessee’s leading scorer at season’s end and possibly not even in the top two;
  3. Chandler leads all NCAA freshmen in assists per game.

Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. The question of whether Huntley-Hatfield starts or not is still unresolved, and it may not even be resolved when I walk into the arena on Saturday for the exhibition game. VolQuest seems to believe Olivier Nkamhoua is the temporary starter to begin the season, which sounds like an awful idea to me unless Nkamhoua has improved his shooting ability immensely in the last seven months. Huntley-Hatfield’s main comparison is Naz Reid, an on-again off-again LSU freshman in 2018-19 that had roughly one lottery pick-level performance (27 and 7 in a road win at Arkansas) for every Steven Pearl outing (1 point, 7 rebounds against Tennessee). The hope is that you get Good Brandon a lot more than Less-Than-Good Brandon.

The reports, for what they’re worth, are that the staff is pushing Huntley-Hatfield harder than any other player because the talent is extremely obvious. Prior to reclassifying to 2021, Huntley-Hatfield was a low-end top 10 recruit in the 2022 class that was dominating high school competition whenever he felt like it. The problem: he does not always seem to feel like it. Huntley-Hatfield vibes in and out of defensive assignments and offensive intensity, which makes the good moments moderately frustrating because you see how amazing this player could be if he ever gets it all together. For a 6’9” power forward, he’s a fabulous shooter and could prove to be a huge boon in lineups where he plays as a smallish 5 or even a 4 next to Fulkerson.

If Huntley-Hatfield is just Naz Reid, that would still be fairly valuable. Bart Torvik’s PORPAGATU metric (think of this as Points Above Replacement or similar) had Reid at a 2.8, which ranked him out as the fifth-best SEC freshman and the 29th-best player in the conference (min. 24 minutes per game). If the 25th-best recruit is a top 30 player in the SEC, that’s a win. Torvik’s 2021-22 projections have him more like the 50th-best player in the SEC if he gets 24 minutes a night, which would be…still okay? I guess? But not thrilling.

My guess here is that a staff known for pushing players pretty hard gets a lot out of Huntley-Hatfield in a short amount of time. If Huntley-Hatfield wants to be a first-round pick, which I think he has the talent to be, he’s gotta show it at Tennessee first.

Three Predictions:

  1. Huntley-Hatfield has at least one game of 25+ points and 10+ rebounds;
  2. Huntley-Hatfield is the starter when SEC play begins;
  3. Huntley-Hatfield ends the year with one of the three highest Usage Percentages on the team.

Possible Rotation Member

These players get two predictions, not three.

Jahmai Mashack. It’s funny that Mashack has been sort of lost in the shuffle; he would have been the highest-rated recruit by a mile on any of Barnes’ first four teams at Tennessee. Sitting at a mere #61 nationally in a class with a pair of top 25 recruits, though, Mashack is seen as more of a 4-year player (questionably three, I’ll say) with a lot of potential that could be more important in seasons to come.

Mashack’s path to Year One playing time almost entirely revolves around his defensive prowess. Every scouting report I’ve read states that Mashack is fantastic on the defensive end and can guard 2-4 with ease. That will be useful; you could think of him as potentially a less offensively-dire and more muscular freshman Davonte Gaines. (I would anticipate that most of Mashack’s points come inside the perimeter, as I have not heard much about his offensive game beyond the fact he drives a lot.) My guess here is this: Mashack shows you enough to get excited about what he can be in 2022-23 and 2023-24 while probably not managing to get a huge amount of playing time in Year One due to needing to develop offensively.

Two Predictions:

  1. Mashack averages between 4-10 minutes per game;
  2. Mashack posts 3 steals per 40 minutes of play.

Quentin Diboundje. This was more of a random take when it happened, but all reports are that Diboundje is Good and Underrated and Potentially Fun. I’m not sure how this happened, but Diboundje went from being listed at 6’6”/185 on 247 to 6’5”/217 on UT’s website. If he really is that thick, that probably makes him more game-ready than Mashack even, simply because of the physical demand of high-major basketball.

The report on Diboundje is somewhat similar to Mashack: a defense-first guy, but more of a 1-3 guarder than 2-4. His shot is supposedly still coming into form, which is fine; I don’t know that Tennessee will desperately need that in Year One. Another player that you hope shows some good flashes that seem sustainable with further development in future seasons.

Two Predictions:

  1. Diboundje also averages between 4-10 minutes per game;
  2. Diboundje has some sort of highlight-reel play in transition that becomes a top 10 GIF of the season.

Zakai Zeigler. This is the wild card. Zeigler basically had no noise surrounding him until this summer, when he broke out at Peach Jam and had several excellent performances. The noise surrounding him at Tennessee now is that he may be the best shooter on the entire roster. (Zeigler won at least one three-point shooting contest among Tennessee’s roster during October, per a source.) The comparison that I’ve gotten, which would be pretty impressive if it comes to fruition, is Jared Harper of Auburn. That guy rocked.

The problem with Zeigler is going to be an obvious one when you hear his height and weight: 5’9”, 167. Zeigler was a late add to this year’s team, so he didn’t even get a summer in the weight room; I would be very worried about how well he can hold up in ball-screen defense as well as isolation situations. That’s going to put a hard cap on his playing time potential against any non-Quadrant 4 opponent. I would note that this is fine, because 1. He was taken as an emergency backup point guard; 2. As such, you should have no serious expectations in Year One.

Two Predictions:

  1. Zeigler plays <100 minutes of basketball this season;
  2. Zeigler still manages to hit multiple threes in at least one game.

Jonas Aidoo. “But wait,” you may be saying. “Why is the 39th-ranked recruit last in the Possible Rotation Members section?” I was surprised by this, too. But every time I’ve asked about Aidoo, the return has been some form of “he’s just gotta get stronger.” You don’t really want to give tons of time to centers without much in the way of physicality.

Few dispute that Aidoo has a lot of potential as a high-major frontcourt player, which is why he was a top 40 recruit in the first place. A 6’11” center that can shoot threes and moves well is an optimal take. However, I would caution against expecting too much in Year One. It’s gonna take time for him to develop; I think you’ll see a lot more of Aidoo in his sophomore season.

Two Predictions:

  1. Aidoo has at least one game where he plays very well and gets the same energy Derrick Walker got in 2017-18;
  2. Aidoo also probably racks up a few DNPs.

Redshirt? Redshirt.

Handje Tamba. Tamba was a late-ish take from Knoxville Catholic locally. He was going to be Tennessee’s second 7-footer on the roster until Tom Satkowiak personally made sure he was listed at 6’11”. (Kidding, Tom!) Jerry Meyer’s basic summation: good shot blocker, strong on the boards, little of note offensively. Tennessee basically already has that in Uros Plavsic, so I would be pretty surprised if you see much of Tamba at all.

One Prediction:

  1. If Tamba doesn’t redshirt, he plays in less than five games.

Can the defense sustain its level of 2020-21 excellence with so many new pieces?

You’re gonna love this non-committal answer: give it time. Tennessee lost one of the most impactful defenders in all of college basketball in Yves Pons. Stats are far from everything, but on a per-minute basis, Davonte Gaines graded out phenomenally, too. Losing Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson: also not ideal.

So my answer is indeed my answer. I’d like to give Tennessee…I don’t know, 15 games to figure it out before I say something strongly one way or the other. It’s worth remembering that as late as the second SEC game in 2017-18, Tennessee’s offense was rated ahead of its defense on KenPom. (If you don’t recall how this shook out, Tennessee finished the year with a top-six defense and a top-40 offense.) There will probably be a few breakdowns early on – to be completely honest, I think the Villanova matchup is a bad one where it’s at on the schedule – but I fully anticipate by season’s end you’re probably looking at a pretty good unit on the whole.

There are three sort of separators to figuring out just how good it can be:

  1. What is Tennessee’s plan for filling the Yves Pons-sized verticality hole?
  2. Aside from Chandler, can Tennessee find one or two additional guards to step up on a consistent basis?
  3. Can Tennessee keep at least two of Fulkerson/Nkamhoua/Huntley-Hatfield out of foul trouble each night?

In order:

  1. You can’t replace that. Sorry. However, it is very much worth noting that for four straight years, Tennessee has ranked in the top 50 nationally in FG% allowed at the rim. This includes 2018-19, a season where Yves Pons barely played a role at all after January but the team still finished 12th in this stat. My assumption is that they’ll figure out a way to wall off the rim with Fulkerson/Nkamhoua/Huntley-Hatfield and force opponents to shoot over the top of them, just like they have for four seasons in a row.
  2. The hope is that at least one of Powell/Bailey/Vescovi take a significant step forward. Tennessee’s plan is likely to keep Josiah-Jordan James on wings and smaller bigs, which means the foursome of the three listed above plus Chandler will get the lion’s share of minutes against guards.
  3. Here is a stat that kind of got lost in the shuffle from 2020-21: John Fulkerson only committed 2.9 fouls per 40 minutes. Among the 37 centers (as listed by Torvik) that got at least 20 minutes per game last season, Fulkerson committed the third-fewest fouls per 40 minutes. Only Evan Mobley and Trayce Jackson-Davis (Indiana) committed fewer. It wasn’t like Fulkerson was poor defensively, either; his +2.6 Defensive Box Plus-Minus (DBPM) ranked 13th of 37 in this group, comfortably above average. He’s a good defensive center with a high floor on defense. I think he’ll be fine. Nkamhoua is the concern; a career 5.5 fouls per 40 rate will do that for you. If he can even get that down to 4-4.5, that would be a huge boon for him as a player. That isn’t an unrealistic leap, either: Fulkerson dropped from 5.4 in 2018-19 to 4.0 in 2019-20 to 2.9 in 2020-21.

NEXT PAGE: Let’s make people mad with some proposed rotations and lineups

One thought on “2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season preview

  1. Great stuff, Will. You write well enough that I can almost convince myself that I understand it all! If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t put down a dime before I checked with you. Keep up the good work!

    Like

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