Tennessee basketball is returning. Life is (somewhat) coming back to normal. You can attend a full-capacity game at Thompson-Boling Arena, just like you’ve been able to attend a full-capacity outdoor sporting event for the last couple of months. It feels okay to head back in after the longest winter we’ll hopefully ever live through. And I think I’m speaking for a lot of people here when I say: finally.
Finally, of the 14 scholarship players on this Tennessee roster, nine will be able to play games in front of a full-capacity crowd for the first time. Finally, we will all get to enter Thompson-Boling Arena on cold January nights again without roughly 15,000 of us being rejected at the door. We can see a top 15 team in person again. We can watch a team grow over the course of 30-plus games. We can see the students do silly things. You can get a big popcorn for $27 or thereabouts. It’s not totally normal yet but it’s close enough to normal that I’m gonna grab it and hold onto it. It’s all I can do.
The thought of experiencing People again sort of continues to push me forward on this 2021-22 track. Undeniably, more than a few Tennessee fans reading this watched the 2020-21 season, felt serious disappointment, and are collectively wondering what the big deal is. Five-star freshman? Did that last year, turned into a mish-mash offense. John Fulkerson’s back for a 19th season? Would be happier if he hadn’t declined in 2020-21. Tennessee has a better overall roster construction? Rick Barnes is still going to convince them to take 14 mid-range jumpers a game.
If you do this, it is obviously understandable. Year Seven of Rick Barnes is upon us, and all the good he has brought Tennessee brings frustrations with it. No coach is perfect. The coaching flavors of the month all eventually reveal themselves to have flaws. Barnes has his. His offense is very much influenced by 2000s/early 2010s basketball, pre-Morey revolution; he’s a bit conservative on trusting players in foul trouble; his sustained success in March is, shall we say, flimsy.
Yet Rick Barnes has won 727 more games than any of us have. He is, at worst, the second-best head coach Tennessee has had in the last 40 years of the program. The defense has twice been spectacular and almost always been pretty good. The offense has been good before and reasonably has the pieces to be good again. And, to be honest, after a year-and-a-half of COVID living, it feels sort of pointless to have anything other than true and real Hope for a new season with new players and no capacity restrictions.
I can’t help but hope. Things can reasonably be different. Perhaps the offense features more analytically-friendly shots and less of the “33% two-point shooter takes five mid-range jumpers” variety. Maybe Tennessee goes all in on winning the shooting and turnover battles. Maybe – just maybe – Tennessee breaches that second Elite Eight or even their first Final Four. It’s about to be November. Anything is possible. Let the hope flow through you. It’s better than the alternative.
Over the following pages, I’m going to try to answer seven reasonably important questions surrounding this 2021-22 Tennessee squad, two per page, except for the final one that gets its own:
- What is the realistic floor and ceiling for this team?
- Will Rick Barnes shift his offensive system to fit the newcomers, both transfers and freshmen?
- What are realistic expectations for these newcomers?
- Can the defense sustain its level of 2020-21 excellence with so many new pieces?
- What are the best lineups, both offensively and defensively?
- How deep does the rotation need to be, and which players are most likely to be in it?
- How does the schedule break down for Tennessee, and what are realistic expectations for fans to have?
I hope the answers are, at worst, somewhat satisfactory.
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