Perhaps the early challenge for Tennessee coach Rick Barnes is balancing his experienced players with some of the budding young talent on his roster.
He’ll get the chance right out of the gate when the No. 18 Volunteers host UT Martin on Tuesday night in Knoxville, Tenn.
Though Tennessee failed to meet the high expectations that were set for 2020-21 by finishing 18-9 and losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, there is a general sense of excitement surrounding Barnes’ squad this season.
The Volunteers are one of five SEC teams ranked to open the season, and they feature a solid mix of returning talent and promising freshmen.
“What you’re looking for day in and day out – who can we count on, do we know what that guy is going to give us every single night?” Barnes said. “I don’t care who’s on your schedule; we believe that whoever we’re playing, we’re going to do our work to get prep, but we want to do what we do. We want to play at a level where we don’t have to come back in and say: ‘Why didn’t you do this?’ Or, ‘What were you thinking on this play?”
Senior guard Victor Bailey Jr. returns as the team’s top scorer (10.9 points per game) from last season, but he shot just 40.2 percentfrom the field. Meanwhile, 6-foot-9 John Fulkerson is back for a sixth season after a rather underachieving effort in 2020-21, when he averaged 9.5 points 5.5 rebounds – one season after setting career highs with 13.7 points and 5.9 boards.
However, the key to Tennessee’s success this season could lie in the hands of highly touted freshman guard Kennedy Chandler, who had 21 points in a recent exhibition win over Lenoir-Rhyne.
Fellow freshman 6-10 Brandon Huntley-Hatfield scored 15 in that contest and appears ready to be an immediate contributor for a Volunteers club that looks to improve after ranking ninth in the 14-team SEC in scoring (71.9 ppg) in 2020-21.
Though the graduation of star defender Yves Pons is something Tennessee must overcome, Barnes’ group still expects to be one of the top defensive teams in the league. The Vols ranked second in the SEC in defensive field-goal percentage (40.2) and No. 1 in scoring defense (62.7 ppg allowed) last season.
That all likely presents a tall order for UT Martin, which is coming off its fourth consecutive losing season and does not return a single player from last season’s 8-16 squad. It’s the only Division I program to hold that distinction, and one that led to the Skyhawks being picked last in the Ohio Valley Conference preseason poll.
The UT Martin roster features six Division I transfers, a combination of Division II and junior-college transfers, plus five true freshmen. Junior forward Josh Endicott averaged 8.7 points and 6.2 rebounds at North Florida last season.
“Chemistry is something that we work on every day, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” first-year Skyhawks coach Ryan Ridder said. “I think we’re becoming more and more comfortable on the court. I think that’s something we’re not afraid to admit: ‘Hey, we’re behind.’ We brought in 14 guys.”
–Field Level Media