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. Today the players that the Vols primarily utilize as Forwards are up.
Grant Williams 6’ 7” 241 lbs. Jr. Charlotte, North Carolina
Tennessee has some questions about where certain players on this roster fit and how they will develop. None of those questions apply to the Junior from Charlotte, because the Vols know precisely what they have in the reigning SEC Player of the Year. Williams is a physical force down low that is capable of taking games over on either end of the floor. Though the Vols often utilize Williams at the five when they go small or feel they can push around an opponent’s post players, his natural and best position is as a Power Forward.
Running the four, Williams doesn’t have to concern himself with being the rock of the defense and serving as the primary rim defender. This is particularly true when Kyle Alexander is on the floor, allowing Williams to be more aggressive on defense, using his strength and size to deny and cut off offensive players further from the rim. He can force opponents to make decisions sooner, denying easy looks that come from deep penetration into the paint. It also allows him to move more freely to play help defense and focus on pulling down defensive rebounds after he forces bad shots. There are few players in the SEC that are going to post up Grant Williams and back him down, he is simply too strong for that. That exceptional strength and the good footwork make Williams an impressive defender and rebounder that can wreck an opponent’s offensive game by shutting down an individual or the paint in general. And that isn’t even the strongest part of his game.
When Grant Williams is playing at his best, it becomes clear that he has an NBA future because his game so closely resembles a long time NBA star that became a face of Tennessee’s NBA franchise. Watching Grant Williams at 6’ 7” and 241 pounds move fluidly and just out muscle everyone around him is like watching Zach Randolph at his best playing with the Memphis Grizzlies. Williams and Randolph share a similar body type, unique strength, exceptional basketball IQ, and an attitude with and without the ball. Like Randolph, Williams uses his strength and comfort with contact to move taller, but leaner, defenders and push them around. He uses his strength to create his own shot and finish it through contact, and to follow it and grab the rebound if he misses the shot. Also, like Randolph, Williams is an exceptional passer in the post, whether it needs to go outside, but often, on a quick pass to an open post-mate after the defense collapses on him. Williams is one of the faces of this Tennessee program, and he must continue to have success if the Vols want to reach the lofty heights they have their eyes on. It is because of his team first attitude and willingness to do the gritty, dirty jobs that others shy away from that Vol fans should feel those lofty expectations are realistic.
Admiral Schofield 6’ 5” 241 lbs. Sr. Zion, Illinois
Admiral is listed as a Guard by the Vols, however his excellent strength and technique, along with his hard-nosed attitude, often see the Vols use him at the three and even the four. When he is on, The Admiral is less of a Guard or Forward, and more of a force of nature. Admiral Schofield is one of the players from last season that was famously referred to by opposing coaches as one of the, “Pair of bulls,” Rick Barnes has at his disposal. Schofield is a player that has dedicated himself to elevating each part of his game in his time at Tennessee, and each season has seen him take steps forward. For all his physical skills, it may be Schofield’s attitude that makes him fit with this team and what Barnes wants so well. To share a conversation had while watching last season’s SEC Tournament, my thoughts on Schofield were, “If you asked that man to post up a velociraptor, not only would he do it, he’d make the shot and get the and one.” In a room of fifteen people with six different favorite SEC teams, no one argued with that statement.
When Schofield is on the floor as a forward, particularly when he is playing at the four, it is when the Vols have decided to go small. For Rick Barnes, going small doesn’t see him encounter most of the negatives that typically associated with that decision. As a matter of fact, Tennessee’s small lineup excels at rebounding. While the duo of Williams and Schofield may give up some height to opponents in the low post, they always have the advantage in strength. Schofield is built like a middle linebacker on the football team, and when called on down low, he has the physicality of one. Few teams can handle the strength, toughness, and hustle of Williams and Schofield together down low as they feed off each other well, score effectively, and are superb rebounders. That said, the Vols would ideally like to see Schofield spend more time on the wing this season at the three or even the two. The Vols have more depth in the front court than with the Guards this year. Schofield can contribute significantly to both groups, and will be used in all three roles, but a team that can put the Admiral down low as a luxury, or have him working for rebounds on the wing, becomes frightening to contain.
Schofield has talent and regularly stuffs the box score and the game film with plays a coach must love, but his basketball skills may not be the most valuable part of Schofield’s game for the Vols. The intensity that Schofield plays every minute with elevates his teammates, and they feed off his energy on both ends of the floor. Beyond elevating their play to rise to his, teammates know that a lapse in effort or play means they will be answering to Barnes as well as Schofield. This is a young man driven and determined to win, the rare senior in today’s college basketball, and his experience and maturity will pay dividends for this squad.
Yves Pons 6’ 6” 205 lbs. So. Paris, France
The Sophomore Frenchman was a prized, four-star addition to the Tennessee roster last season. Pons arrived at Tennessee knowing that he needed some development to see minutes for Rick Barnes. By all accounts he put in that work, however the progression of a few other players on the roster meant Pons didn’t see as many minutes as most anticipated. That said, Pons workload increased as the season went on. There should be more opportunities for the sophomore this season, especially with his size and length contributing to his ability to be the type of defender that Barnes covets. Pons also benefits on defense from his greatest strength, his incredible athleticism. Pons has speed, quickness, strength, and excellent leaping ability. The physical tools were clear to see during his minutes last season, and videos of the offseason have again demonstrated what a rare, pure athlete Pons is. If he can turn that abundance of athletic ability into an ability to create his own shot and score in isolation his role can expand on this team.
Tennessee relies heavily on running their sets and playing offense within the framework of the play call. Tennessee doesn’t have many guys outside of Lamonte Turner that can simply hit the floor and start scoring. At times, particularly if a team is slowing down the calls or ball movement is poor, Tennessee can go very cold on offense. Tennessee needs to find someone they can pull off the bench and watch go score some points besides Turner. Pons has all the tools to be that kind of player for Barnes, and if he can develop into an instant offense player off the bench, with his length, there will be plenty of minutes for him this season.
John Fulkerson 6’ 9” 210 lbs. So. Kingsport, TN
Fulkerson arrived at Tennessee for the 16-17 season, and the Northeast Tennessee product was off to a promising start as a true freshman. Fulkerson was earning more playing time, shooting at a high percentage, and playing well in some big games for the Vols before a nasty injury cost him the rest of his true freshman campaign. Fulkerson was granted a medical redshirt for the 16-17 season and contributed off the bench for the Vols as a redshirt freshman last season. Fulkerson never looked quite the same last season as he had during his impressive start, but he had more than a little rust and recovery to deal with.
Barnes wants to see Fulkerson expand his game for these Vols and contribute more on the boards, something that a year of healthy strength and conditioning should help. That is something Fulkerson needs to add, but he also needs to stick to what got him early success at Tennessee, which was being an efficient scorer that had solid range at 6’ 9”. Fulkerson’s size and range within the framework of this Tennessee team could be a matchup nightmare for opponents to defend. He must grow in terms of his defense and rebounding, but a five on the floor for the Vols from five to one of Alexander, Williams, Fulkerson, Schofield, and Turner as a group has exceptional size, great rebounding, good defense, and shooters all over the floor. Again, this is simply one group Barnes would have at his disposal, but it is one that is intriguing if Fulkerson can regain his stroke in terms of helping a Vol offense that went stagnant at times last season. Fulkerson’s ability to be a stretch forward and shoot from range with his size could contribute to helping the Tennessee offense avoid some of the doldrums that plagued them at times last season. If he can develop defensively and on the boards, he has a chance to see his role jump to what it looked like it could have grown into as a freshman.
Derrick Walker 6’ 8” 238 lbs. So. Kansas City, Missouri
Walker arrived from Kansas City as a big bodied freshman that showed a lot of hustle and willingness to fight for rebounds and play defense. Under Rick Barnes, those characteristics will get you some time on the floor. While Walker didn’t see a ton of minutes with the Vols relying more on their Guards last season, there are clearly minutes available on the wing, it is simply a matter of who will step up and take them. Walker’s size and defense mean that Barnes will be willing to put him on the floor and develop on offense since he trusts him on the other end. If Walker can show the ability to consistently put the ball on the floor and drive to the rim, he can become an asset on offense and a player that has the mentality and physical gifts to be a very good on ball defender. Walker offers more strength out on the wing than most of Tennessee’s other options. The different skill sets of these players mean that Barnes can insert the player he feels best fits the current situation, but outside of Schofield, Walker is unique on the wing for the Vols in his body type. Expect to see Walker on the floor, but just how much will depend on how far he and his teammates have progressed this off season.
Tennessee will be so difficult for teams to matchup against this season on the hardwood because they have the personnel to play whatever style of basketball they are required to. That said, it does look like one of the spots on the wing could be up for grabs if a player steps up and takes it. There are minutes to be had, even if the time is filled by committee and dictated by situation. The depth of the Tennessee bench and their ability to contribute when called upon makes the Vols difficult to handle for any team in the country, allows them to overcome foul trouble, ensures they can match up against any style of defense, and allows them an opportunity to come out and compete for a National Title this season.