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THE REAL DEAL: Could this be THE year for Tennessee men's basketball?

By: Elijah Hixson

Junior Staff Writer

The All Vol Call in Show


Photo | WVLT

After back-to-back disappointing losses in March, the Tennessee Volunteers basketball team hopes to do great things in the 2023-2024 season.

Many Volunteer fans anticipate the upcoming season after a 2-0 start in the preseason. Tennessee took down preseason AP ranked number four Michigan State 89-88 on the road with a last-second free throw game-winner, and they clobbered Lenoir-Rhyne, winning by a whopping 40 points.

While it was a preseason charity exhibition match to support the Maui Strong Fund, taking down the number four-ranked Spartans should not go unnoticed. The Spartans showed flashes of greatness in the 2022-2023 season, but the lack of experience was apparent throughout the season as they finished just seventh in the Big 10. They made it into the NCAA tournament as a seven-seed and came up just short of making the elite eight after a thrilling overtime loss to Kansas State. With the return of many of its players and a stellar recruiting class, fans of the Spartans hope to make a run at a National Title.

In the exhibition match against the Spartans, both teams came to play, with most starters playing up until the final buzzer. The Volunteers jumped out to a 17-1 lead early on, this being the game's largest lead. The Spartans closed the gap over the half as they trailed only by three heading into the break. Tennessee never trailed the entire game, but with just under ten seconds left, the Spartans got a huge turnover, translating into a game-tying three, as the Breslin Center exploded. With just under two seconds, the crowd was hushed as Sophomore guard Tre Holloman committed a costly foul, sending Junior guard USC Upstate transfer Jordan Gainey to the line. Adding dramatics, Gainey missed the first free throw but knocked down the second to close out a preseason thriller for Coach Rick Barnes and the Volunteers.

After getting upset in a heartbreaking loss to FAU in the Sweet Sixteen last season, Coach Barnes seemingly took it personally as he went on a tear this offseason, looking to improve on the offensive end as the team ranked outside of the top 50 in multiple offensive categories. Coach Barnes brought two highly touted scoring threats in Senior forward Dalton Knecht from Northern Colorado and sharpshooting Junior guard Jordan Gainey from South Carolina Upstate. Both have put on an impressive showing in Tennessee's first two exhibition games. Knecht and Gainey lead the scoring for the Volunteer's win Sunday against Michigan State.

Tennessee also returns much of its defensive production as well. They finished last season as the number-one team in the nation in the defensive efficiency category. They return eight players, most of whom were significant contributors to the 2022-2023 squad. This includes the team's leading scorer, two-time All-SEC first-teamer Senior guard Santiago Vescovi, a true veteran of college basketball. Another starter returning from an ACL tear is major ball-handler and two-time SEC all-defensive team member Junior Guard Zakai Ziegler. The Volunteers also return fifth-year Senior Josiah-Jordan James. Since day one, all three have been key contributors, played a major role in Tennessee's 2022 SEC championship squad, and have some real experience in March.

Much more return for the Volunteers, including Junior big man Jonas Aidoo, Sophomore forward Tobe Awaka, Junior guard Jahmai Mashack, and a pair of Redshirt Freshman in guards Freddie Dillione V and D.J. Jefferson. Each had a significant role last season. Aidoo, who led the ’22 squad in blocks, excites fans with his 6’11, 240 lb. frame as he should take on a more prominent role. Awaka, with his monstrous 6’8, 250 lb., impressed many this off season when he started six of seven games for the 2023 U19 U.S. Men’s National as he averaged 11.6 points while also leading the tournament in rebounds with 74 and double-doubles with four. Mashack averaged 18.1 minutes per game last season and proved he was a defensive specimen, averaging 1.5 steals per game. Dillione and Jefferson, both Freshmen last year, saw zero minutes but should take on a more significant role this season.

While bringing in talent from the portal and returning eight players. The Volunteers also brought a solid recruiting class to complement the already deep roster. They brought in a pair of four stars in guard Cameron Carr and J.P. Estrella. The Volunteers also snagged three-star forward Cade Phillips. All three look to contribute in their own ways and learn from an experienced team.

Tennessee opens the season on Monday at 6:30 versus Tennessee-Tech. They then go on the road to face a formidable opponent in Wisconsin. After they take on Wofford at home just before they compete in the highly anticipated rendition of the 2023 Maui Jim Maui Invitational, where five of the eight competing are ranked within the preseason's top-10 poll. An opportunity for the Volunteers to gain some serious momentum heading into Chapel Hill to take on the 19th Ranked North Carolina Tar Heels to round out a challenging but exciting November. The Schedule cools down just a little bit in December, as they don't go on the road once. But they will see just one top-25 opponent in Illinois before getting into SEC play in January.

With such a tough schedule, Tennessee hopes to ride huge win after huge win into March, where, with depth, experience, and talent, they hope to make their first Final Four in program history. Rick Barnes has a reputation for always coming up short in the NCAA tournament, but many fans are optimistic that he can finally take his team deep. The team should be hungry after falling short in the Conference tournament and getting upset in the Sweet 16. Fans have plenty to look forward to this upcoming season, with so many craving what they never have had. With a team like this one, this could be the year.


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