David Cloninger

Previewing SEC basketball: Tennessee

Holly Warlick and Tennessee suffered through the worst season in program history last year ... yet still made the Elite Eight.
Holly Warlick and Tennessee suffered through the worst season in program history last year ... yet still made the Elite Eight. The Tennesseean

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Oct. 29 Alabama

Oct. 30 Arkansas

Oct. 31 Auburn

Nov. 1 Florida

Nov. 2 Georgia

Nov. 3 Kentucky

Nov. 4 LSU

Nov. 5 Mississippi State

Nov. 6 Missouri

Nov. 7 Ole Miss

Men

Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Rick Barnes (15-19 Tennessee, second year; 619-333, 30th year)

2015-16 record (SEC finish): 15-19 (6-12)

2015-16 postseason: None

Roster

Schedule

2016-17 media predicted finish: 13

DC’s predicted finish: 11

He’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): G Kevin Punter (22.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg), F Armani Moore (12.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg), F Derek Reese (3.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg), G Devon Baulkman (9.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg), F Jabari McGhee (3.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, transferred to Western Kentucky), F Ray Kasongo (1.4 ppg, 1.5 rpg, transferred to Iowa State)

He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): F Grant Williams, F Jalen Johnson, F John Fulkerson, G Jordan Bone, G Kwe Parker, F Lew Evans (Sr., transferred from Utah State, eligible this year), G Jacob Fleschman, G Jordan Bowden

Top returners: 6-5 G Robert Hubbs (10.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg), 6-1 G Detrick Mostella (8.4 ppg, 2.2 rpg), 6-4 F Admiral Schofield (7.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg)

Tennessee needed stability more than success last year. After running off a good coach because he wasn’t an NCAA-caught coach, then welcoming and turfing another NCAA-caught coach, 600-game winner Rick Barnes was just what the Volunteers needed to steady the wheel and keep the program on an even keel.

Winning was put off for a year. Now that UT is back on solid ground, will the victories start rolling in?

Probably not. But at least the NCAA won’t be sniffing around anymore.

The Vols lost some of their best players and most of their experience. They have a lot of options to replace the departed, but those options are seven freshmen and a graduate transfer from Utah State.

The former Aggie, Lew Evans, brings much-needed size to the post and he’ll get to team with Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander. If the guards can quickly merge into one dependable backcourt, perhaps Tennessee can surprise some folks, like they did at the SEC tournament last year.

Robert Hubbs is the leading returning scorer and has been sometimes spectacular, although he’s never reached the lofty heights pegged by his high-school recruiting rankings. He’ll get some help from Lamonte Turner, who was around last year but forced to redshirt. The Vols return Shembari Phillips and Detrick Mostella to help the backcourt.

A lot of wins aren’t likely this year, but the future is bright. That’s why Barnes was snapped up before the ink was dry on his severance at Texas. They’re one of the youngest teams in the league this year, but that youth will grow up.

It just takes a little while.

Women

Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Holly Warlick (108-34 fifth year/overall)

2015-16 record (SEC finish): 22-14 (8-8)

2015-16 postseason: Elite Eight

Roster

Schedule

2016-17 media predicted finish: 3

DC’s predicted finish: 4

She’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): F Jasmine Jones (Jr., 5.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, quit basketball due to health), F Bashaara Graves (10.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg), C Nia Moore (2.0 ppg, 1.9 rpg), G Andraya Carter (4.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg, quit basketball due to health)

She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): C Schaquilla Nunn (Sr., transferred from Winthrop, eligible this year), F Cheridene Green (transferred from ASA College, will redshirt this year due to injury), G Kamera Harris

Top returners: 6-1 G Diamond DeShields (14.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg), 6-6 C Mercedes Russell (9.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg), 6-2 G/F Jaime Nared (8.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg)

It’s still Tennessee.

That’s why the Lady Vols were picked third this year despite coming off the worst season (by total losses) in program history and suiting up just nine players this year. That’s why nobody was marching on Holly Warlick’s house with raised torches and pitchforks when Tennessee lost to SEC opponents it hardly ever loses to (and to Mississippi State, which it had never lost to. Ever).

Because it’s still Tennessee. And when Tennessee decided that was enough, quit turning the ball over and played to its talent, it spurted to the Elite Eight before it ran into a Syracuse team living a charmed life.

The end made the buildup to it a little bit easier to bear. The online sniping, the pointed comments from some players’ parents and the bad marks the team set were overcome by getting as close to the big prize as any other recent Tennessee team. At the end of the day, the Lady Vols were one of a handful of teams still playing in late March, and in terms of how the program has finished nationally since 2009, an Elite Eight berth was right on par.

Coming into this year, there are still many issues. The Vols only signed one freshman and filled the roster with a graduate transfer from Winthrop, of all places. With Cheridene Green and Te’a Cooper redshirting due to injuries, Tennessee has nine players.

Throw in that the SEC and women’s basketball as a whole has gotten so much better since the Vols owned the world and it could still be a tough year. But the core of the team, led by the immensely talented Diamond DeShields, is intact and remembers how well it played when it had to win last year.

I didn’t see anything other than turnovers and inconsistent point-guard play that led to UT’s losses last year. That was solved in the postseason. The Lady Vols are still loaded with all-star prep players, perhaps fewer than they’re used to due to injury, but they’re still awfully good.

So I didn’t hesitate to pick Tennessee top-four when I filled my preseason All-SEC ballot, although in my Top 25 ballot, I ranked them much lower than they were picked.

Because it’s still Tennessee.

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