When they entered the 2017-2018 season, the Tennessee Volunteers were picked to finish thirteenth by the national media……in the SEC. Fast forward one season and coming into the 2018-2019 season that same national media has Rick Barnes’s squad ranked sixth…...in the Nation. What a difference a year makes. Well, a year, a share of the SEC Regular Season Title, the returning SEC Player of the Year, the Returning SEC Sixth Man of the Year, an intact starting lineup, and a team that is hungry from an NCAA Tournament exit that was far too soon for their taste. The fact of the matter is that the Vols are opening with their highest pre-season ranking in the history of the program, and a compelling case can be made that they aren’t high enough. These Vols are already an exceptional squad, and the expectations are rightfully through the roof coming into this season. If Tennessee stays relatively healthy, this is a team that belongs in any conversation of teams that are favorites to bring home the National Title.
Those are lofty expectations for this program, players, and staff, but there they are just the same. Keeping that in mind, let’s look at some of the different position groups for Tennessee going into the season. Perhaps the greatest strength Tennessee has going into this season is that they are one of the toughest matchups any team in the nation can draw. With their personnel, the Vols can play small, space the floor with shooters, play gritty defense with long athletes, play big, or grind teams down in the half court. Due to that versatility, some of these players will be listed in more than one group as they move depending on what the Vols choose to do. Stepping from the inside out, the first group up will be the players Tennessee uses as their Centers.
Kyle Alexander 6’ 11” 220 lbs. Sr. Malton, Ontario (Canada)
Alexander arrived in Knoxville as a lean power forward prospect that Tennessee saw plenty of potential in but felt would require some development. The long Canadian has seen his role with the Vols increase each season and has seen his stats rise as a result. That said, the 17-18 saw Alexander take a huge stride forward for Tennessee, becoming one of the key players on the floor by the end of the season. A glance at the per game stats from Alexander last season won’t blow anyone away, however, what the Senior does so exceptionally well is less easily quantified by statistics.
As last season progressed, Kyle Alexander developed into an excellent rim protector. He bought in entirely to Rick Barnes demanding that for his players earn minutes, they must play good defense. This resulted in Alexander becoming the rock, the anchor, of the Volunteer defense with the set shifting around him. Anyone attempting to drive the lane on the Vols was greeted at the rim by the 6’ 11” shot blocker. His length alone forces many players to alter their shots, but one of Alexander’s biggest steps last season was his ability to move his feet and stay in advantageous position at the rim. This meant opponents were forced to move their path and shot to get over the big man, or else risk him using his quickness to close a drive entirely down. Being forced to stop in the lane against Tennessee’s attacking defense meant being closed down on by the likes of Alexander, Grant Williams, and Admiral Schofield. In other words, the possession was often stopped dead at best, or often lead to a turnover and a fast break bucket for the Big Orange at worst. Alexander grew into a reliable defender down low, his skill allowing Barnes to be more aggressive with his defense on the perimeter, confident that if a Guard was beaten, Alexander could erase the mistake.
That confidence in his big man as a defender meant that Alexander saw more minutes as the season went on. It also saw Alexander rise to the occasion. Beyond his defense, Alexander is good, scrappy rebounder on both ends of the floor. He has enough experience to know when to take a shot himself, when to kick a ball out, when to flip to Williams or Schofield down low, or when to look for an outlet to start a break. Realistically, Tennessee doesn’t ask Alexander to do a lot of heavy lifting as a scorer. The Vols want their big man to be the lynchpin of their defensive scheme, pulldown double digit rebounds, and take the shots he obviously needs to. An eight to ten point effort from Alexander is a good offensive night, but only if the rebound numbers don’t suffer. If Alexander can continue to grow as a player and increase his offensive production, even just catching passes when teams collapse on Grant Williams to make easy layups regularly, he becomes greater than the sum of his stats. Becoming a reliable post option, even if it comes primarily from making teams pay for collapsing on Williams and Schofield, makes the Vols exponentially more difficult to defend. Remaining the rock that the Tennessee defense is built upon is Alexander’s primary focus but increasing his efficiency on offense and as a rebounder is one of the steps that could push the Vols into the Final Four and beyond.
DJ Burns 6’ 9” 248 lbs. Fr. Rock Hill, South Carolina
Originally slated to enter college as a member of the 2019 recruiting cycle, the four-star Center from South Carolina was at the top of Tennessee’s wish list in that class. Then, late in the recruiting cycle, Burns was eligible to, and ultimately elected to, reclassify to join the 2018 recruiting cycle. Rick Barnes jumped at the opportunity to get Burns on campus a season earlier than anticipated, and Burns enrolled at Tennessee back in June.
As a true freshman on a team with so much talent in the front court, Burns will have plenty of work to do in order to earn minutes in the upcoming season. Barnes was clear that he expected Burns to lose some weight, commit to conditioning, and get in SEC Basketball shape. Burns seems to have done what was asked and expected of him, and that dedication could pay off not only for him, but for his new team as well.
One of the few holes for the 17-18 Vols was a lack of a true center, particularly when Kyle Alexander was forced off the floor with foul trouble or just needed a break. Tennessee often addressed this by having Grant Williams play in a role that was essentially that of a center with a smaller lineup that was filled with guys that played bigger than they were. This was a bruising lineup that the Vols had success with, but that could struggle at times when they encountered teams with exceptional length and athleticism down low. The best example of this hole was Tennessee’s early exit in the NCAA Tournament where the Vols clearly missed Alexander’s presence at the rim.
The addition of Burns to this roster, particularly if he puts in the work and is ready to contribute immediately, fills that hole in a big way. Burns gives Tennessee an option for a true center to work around when Alexander needs to come off the floor, and allows the Vols depth on the bench to stay big with whoever they play, even with foul issues for Alexander or Williams. Burns is a talented offensive player with the size and strength to contribute as a defender, especially if he commits to taking the coaching Barnes demands on that end of the floor. There are minutes to be had for Burns if he will step up and take them, and a role available for him to fill that, like Alexander’s development, could lead to the Vols cutting down nets at the end of March. Dedication to conditioning, defense, and rebounding will get Burns on the floor and helping the Big Orange. His offensive prowess and ability to be a bench scoring option as a big, and a chess piece to use with some of Tennessee’s lead bulls could keep him there.
Grant Williams 6’ 7” 241 lbs. Jr. Charlotte, North Carolina
Vol fans need no introduction to what Grant Williams is capable of. The 17-18 SEC Player of the Year and the 18-19 Pre-Season Player of the Year has shown repeatedly that he can shoulder the load for Tennessee. Williams is listed as a Power Forward, and that is absolutely his true and best position on the floor for Rick Barnes. However, at 241 pounds, Williams is a slab of solid muscle that looks like he could probably play Tight End or Defensive End for the football team. That exceptional physicality and strength means that Williams is not only capable of filling the role of Center for Tennessee when they decide to go small, he excels at it. His unique body type, skillset, and the team around him means the Vols can kick the Junior to the five and watch him take over down low.
It is rare to hear a 6’ 7” man referred to as, “Short,” but in the world of college basketball, that is a short Center. The distinction of, “Short,” versus, “Small,” is also important here. Williams will often give up several inches to an opponent if he is playing the five, but he is regularly the larger man. Williams uses his strength to fight through contact, get his own shot, and score. He also plays with an edge that sees him muscle out taller big men that simply lack his determination to come down with a rebound. Williams plays with a grit and physicality that have seen opposing coaches refer to him as a bully, a bull, and a grown man, respectively. Barnes is comfortable kicking Williams to the five because he can spread the floor with lengthy defenders, a couple good shooters, and watch Williams demolish taller men down low, meaning the Vols stay faster and quicker on defense without giving up much on the block on either end. Williams is a special talent, that is without a doubt, but his versatility makes him a perfect player for this team and what they do well. Tennessee would like to see Williams play more at his natural position at Power Forward this season, but make no mistake, he will be playing the five in this upcoming season, and his ability to do so effectively will determine whether Tennessee reaches their lofty expectations.
These big men have a wide range of skills that demonstrate the flexibility that makes this version of the Vols so dangerous. Their defense and rebounding set the tone for the type of basketball Rick Barnes wants to have from his teams. Tennessee is starting higher than they ever have this season. If they want to finish the season with that same moniker, it will require a significant amount of success coming from down low.