Tell me the last time you heard a SEC fan talk about the University of Tennessee recently other than to yap about how they have a terrible football team? First off, we’re working on the football thing okay! Second, all Tennessee athletics have been known for in the last 30 years are the Lady Vols basketball team (on an extremely smaller scale) and college football. The 2018-2019 season, however, has proved to be a season where the new era of Tennessee athletics will be taking over. This article is going to catch everyone up to speed on how Tennessee Basketball went from something you only watched in March (if they were good enough that season) to now having a legitimate reason for blasting Rocky Top in the spring.
In 2015 only two days after being fired from his longtime employer, Texas, Rick Barnes traded his Burnt Orange for orange of another shade. He accepted the Head Coaching position with the Tennessee Volunteers; a team coming off of an even .500 season with the record much to blame on losing players such as Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae. Barnes was the coach at Texas for 17 seasons where he built a true college basketball titan. With a final four appearance under his belt as well as having coached NBA stars such as Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge, Barnes wasnt your typical jobless NCAA head coach. Former Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart at the time of the hire said, “Rick brings an extremely impressive track record, as well as much needed stability.” Those high praises come easy after 600+ victories as an NCAA coach, but stability isn’t as easy to find when trying to ignite a program.
Typically your first recruiting class as a head coach defines what direction you want your program to go into, and with Tennessee basketball being such an afterthought for the better part of the 2000s, Barnes could take this any direction he so pleased and make the right choice. The first thing Barnes needed was a player that could lead and inspire a group of men. Someone to be the pioneer of this new dawn in Tennessee basketball. He needed an Admiral!
The 6’6, 241 pound Admiral Schofield was the eventual star of that 2015 recruiting class but in 2015 we didn’t know that. With fellow true freshman Kyle Alexander by his side in the starting rotation, Admiral and the Vols pushed out a 15-19 record. Worse than the previous season. With three starting players leaving the team at the end of the 2016 season, Barnes looked to continue to build and fill out this roster. Enter Grant Williams and Jordan Bone. In today’s current season these four players mentioned serve as four of the Vols’ starters. These key pieces sparked the culture change that the Vols had been wanting for years now.
2016-2017 resulted in a 16-16 season. Grant Williams started all 32 games and averaged 12.6 points and 6 rebounds as a freshman while Schofield continued to find his game at the collegiate level. Alexander and Bone were bench players this season, Bone sitting for Lamonte Turner, another piece in the first 2015 recruiting class. Something wasn’t clicking. The pieces were in place, perhaps just more time to develop all these underclassman was needed. The 2017-2018 season is where we finally see the initial payoff of this young core Barnes had brought together. He made changes to the starting lineup by replacing Lamonte Turner with Jordan Bone and playing Kyle Alexander as a true center to complete what would become Tennessee’s identity moving forward. Physical defense and a physical offense close to the basket.
The 2017-2018 Tennessee Vols went 26-9 on the season, earning the SEC Championship in the process. Still after a 10-3 start to the season, nobody expected the Vols to beat Kentucky. Even after they pulled out an 11 point victory, many said it would be different later in the season when they traveled to Lexington. Tennessee silenced the doubters once again, winning 61-59 on the Wildcats’ home court. A third game was set up in the SEC Tournament Championship. Schofield led the team with 22 points and 10 rebounds, albeit in a losing effort. The moving of Lamonte Turner to the bench proved to be great for the team as he averaged 11 points per game while not starting a single one. Turner earned SEC Sixth Man of the Year honors. Grant Williams averaged 16 point per game as well as 6 rebounds, good enough to receive the SEC Player of the Year Award. Rick Barnes had grown this program in just two seasons to a conference champion as well as a three seed in the NCAA tournament, which is why Coach Barnes was given the SEC Coach of the Year Award.
The tournament results had fans in Knoxville fearing the worst when a heavily favored Tennessee team lost to 2018’s Cinderella story. Sister Jean and the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (I’m still convinced she sold her soul to the devil). Coming off the success of the 2017-2018 season, Admiral entered his name into the 2018 NBA draft hoping he could ride this wave of Big Orange to the league. For reasons to this day I cannot explain, Schofield decided to enter and represent himself without an agent. This decision may have been one to change Tennessee basketball for years to come, as Admiral was not drafted by an NBA franchise and decided to return for his senior season alongside his partner in crime Grant Williams. If Schofield is represented by an agent does he go to an NBA team? Do the Tennessee Vols continue their success in rebuilding the program? Questions that won’t be answered are fun to think about, but the result of that decision has netted (as of 3/5/19) the Vols a 27-3 record which gave Barnes group of men a 4 week stint ranked #1 in the AP poll. Grant WIlliams has averaged 19-7-3 including a 43 point performance against rival Vanderbilt where he went 23 for 23 from the foul line. Jordan Bone continues to be the floor general Barnes had hoped for, averaging a 6:1 Assist:Turnover ratio in conference play, all while the soulful leader of the team Admiral Schofield grows his game around the talented bunch. Defeating #1 ranked Gonzaga has been the biggest victory of the season so far for a team determined to wear you down on both ends of the floor with physical post play and tight defense. Their loss against Kentucky was avenged when they re-matched on March 2nd in Thompson-Bowling Arena.
All of this traction Tennessee has built up currently has them sitting 5th in the week 18 AP Poll. NBA Scouts noticed what is happening on Rocky Top, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield have both been added to many draft boards thanks to their hard work in the 2018 off-season and the performances they have put on during the season. Only two games remain this season before the SEC tournament begins on March 13th. A strong showing could net the Vols a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament this season. This culture change throughout the basketball program has made a quick impact thanks to the right coaching hire in 2015, as well as a group of hard working young men discovered by Barnes. With 5-Star recruit Josiah James already committed for the 2019-2020 season, it seems this big orange takeover in college basketball could be here just in time for the turn of the decade.