Veteran squad aspires for greater real estate and to go where no Volunteers have gone before
The tandem of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield have Tennessee fans harkening back to yesteryear when Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld were arguably the top duo in college basketball from 1974-77.
Last year, the Volunteers came out of nowhere to earn a share of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) regular-season championship. In addition, the Vols advanced to the SEC Tourney title game and an eventual No. 3 Seed in the South Regional.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, Cinderella arrived in the form of Loyola University Chicago. The Ramblers ended the Vols’ season with a last-second shot that spearheaded a run to the Final Four and raised a question of what if for UT. Head coach Rick Barnes’ (661-358) third season in Knoxville provided fans with a year to remember and hope for the future, which appears bright as Barnes leads his squad, ranked sixth in preseason, into the 2018-19 campaign.
Barnes will look to reigning SEC Player of the Year Williams (15.2 ppg/6 rpg) to lead the Volunteers to another successful season. Despite facing consistent double teams, the 6-foot-7 forward finished ninth in scoring during league play and joined Tennessee legend King as the only Vol to win conference player of the year honors as underclassman.
Joining Williams for the 2018-19 encore is senior forward Schofield (13.9 ppg/6.4 rpg), who gives Tennessee a formidable one-two punch. Schofield is the Vols’ Swiss Army knife as he can play inside while also being versatile enough to guard opponents on the perimeter. Barnes hopes the 6-5 Schofield continues his vast improvement from beyond the arc and will encourage him to let it fly.
Senior Kyle Alexander returns to man the middle and use his 6-9 frame to block or alter shots that come his way. While not the offensive threat Williams and Schofield are, Barnes considers Alexander the “fix-it guy,” and his ailing hip that kept him out of the Loyola game gave fans another “what if” to consider. The Volunteers will also look to 2017-18 SEC Sixth Man of the Year Lamont Turner (10.9 ppg) to continue to punish opponents who pack the paint with his prolific touch from the outside.
With no significant departures, the Vols hope guard Jordan Bone (7.3 ppg/3.5 apg) will erase the sloppy play that plagued him throughout last season and provide stability at the point. The Vols will also attempt to mold 6-9, 280-pound freshman D.J. Burns into game shape to give the squad an intriguing big body off the bench.
Although the Volunteers have featured standouts like King, Grunfeld, and Dale Ellis over the years, the program’s lone Elite Eight trip in 21 NCAA tournament appearances came in 2010. However, the Volunteers are tied with LSU for second-most SEC regular-season titles with 10 and are winners of four SEC Tournament titles.
Tennessee’s non-conference schedule is loaded with prime matchups and the Vols can impress the NCAA Tournament committee with some standout performances. If the Volunteers can get past Louisville on Nov. 21 in the NIT Season Tip-Off opener in Brooklyn, a potential matchup with Associated Press preseason No. 1 Kansas could take place on Nov. 23. The Volunteers then travel to Phoenix for a meeting with third-ranked Gonzaga on Dec. 9 in the Jerry Colangelo Classic. On Dec. 15, Tennessee will make the short trip to Memphis to face the Memphis Tigers, renewing the inter-state battle in the first of a three-game series. The Vols will take a break from the rigors of league play and welcome West Virginia to the Thompson-Boling Arena on Jan. 26 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
Improvement from Tennessee’s wings will help tell the story of the 2018-19 Volunteers and whether last season was a mirage. With that said, expect the Vols to compete for a second consecutive SEC title and make a deep run in March behind the excellence of Williams and Schofield.
The Vols hope this duo’s fortunes are better than King and Grunfeld, as they were ousted in the first round of the NCAA Tourney in both 1976 and ‘77. H&A