In prior years, when Tennessee’s football season tanked as it did this year with devastating losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt, I could look forward to the prospect of a basketball season that held more promise.
But not this year. The Vols returned only one bona fide starter from a team that had a losing record last year both in the SEC and overall. Preseason prognostications had them pegged to finish next to last in the conference. And their preconference schedule was loaded with nationally ranked teams that figured to demolish them.
True, Coach Rick Barnes had recruited six freshmen to replenish a depleted roster. But none of them was heralded. Indeed, they were all rated as three-star prospects on 247 Sports’ five-star scale, and even their sheer number was only enough to get Tennessee’s recruiting class ranked 48th in the land. By contrast, John Calipari landed four five-star prospects to earn Kentucky a number-two national ranking. Elsewhere in the SEC, both Bruce Pearl at Auburn and Ben Howland at Mississippi State brought in enough four- and five-star recruits for their classes to be ranked in the top 10.
Four of Tennessee’s freshmen come from North Carolina, where Barnes hails. But it’s not as if he was snatching talent away from that state’s two deans of the sport, Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and Roy Williams at North Carolina. Both of them had recruiting classes ranked in the top 10 as well; but they both went out of state for all of their signees while disdaining what they considered to be inferior homegrown talent.
The Vols’ two other freshmen are both from Tennessee, including the first Knoxvillian to get a UT basketball scholarship since the 1980s. Yet when Jordan Bowden graduated from Carter High School in 2015, he didn’t have a single major college offer. So he went to a basketball “finishing school” for a year in order to get one from Tennessee where he’s immediately become a starter.
For all of these shortcomings, Tennessee’s early season performance far exceeded almost anyone’s expectations. With their one returning starter. Robert Hubbs, leading the way and freshmen playing a major role, they battled all four of their nationally ranked preconference opponents on almost even terms. At a jamboree in Hawaii, they came back from a big deficit to take the lead against Wisconsin before finally succumbing. The next day they lost out in overtime to Oregon. In a road game at Chapel Hill, they held the lead against then number-four ranked North Carolina for most of the game before letting it slip away. Against now number-one ranked Gonzaga, they fell behind by 27-6 before making a huge comeback to tie the score only to lose out once again.
The most exciting of the freshmen in the early going was a 6-foot 8-inch lefty, John Fulkerson, who defies the old canard about white men not being able to jump. His remarkable leaping ability and deft moves around the basket made him an instant fan favorite. But in a mid-December game against Tennessee Tech, Fulkerson crashed to the floor with an excruciating thud. A dislocated elbow required season-ending surgery, depriving the Vols of one of their prime weapons. Then, in early January, the team’s one other upper-classman, Detrick Mostella, who provided a spark coming off the bench for the past two seasons, was dismissed from the team for drug violations (though criminal charges against him have since been dropped).
Without these two stalwarts, what had been rising hopes for a successful SEC portion of the season took a nosedive. But to Barnes’ great credit, his other freshmen have come to the fore and made Tennessee an SEC contender. During the team’s four-game winning streak in late January, freshmen accounted for more than half of the team’s total points and more than half of the total playing time. The streak included wins over the three SEC teams whose freshmen classes had been rated so much higher: Auburn, Mississippi State, and, most remarkably, Kentucky.
Not in anybody’s memory, including that of UT’s director of basketball media relations Tom Satkowiak, have freshmen played or scored so much. Just as remarkably, none of the four freshmen who are now the mainstays are more than 6 feet 5 inches. Hubbs, who is also 6 feet 5 inches, remains the leading scorer, and a 6-foot-4-inch sophomore, Admiral Schofield, has stepped up to fill the hole left by the loss of Fulkerson.
Game after game, the rugged Schofield and the even more so 6-foot-5-imch freshman post player Grant Williams have more than held their own against opposing post players who are mostly at least 4 inches taller. The indomitable Williams, who has become the team’s leading rebounder as well as its second-leading scorer, is well on his way to surpassing the freshman accomplishments of any Tennessee post player since Bernard King in 1975.
One has to look back even further and somewhere else to find a stellar team with no starters taller than 6 feet 5 inches. The quintessential one was Adolph Rupp’s 1966 Kentucky team that went through the regular season undefeated until losing its final game against guess who: Tennessee. Rupp’s Runts, as they were known, went on to the NCAA finals where, in one of college basketball’s classic games, the all-white Big Blue were upset by an all-black team from Texas Western.
Rupp’s Runts were mostly juniors and seniors. So Rick’s Runts have several more seasons to rise to the same proportions. A blessing of their lack of stature is that none of them stand hardly any chance of being drafted into the NBA. (Again, by contrast, three of this year’s Kentucky freshmen are projected to be high draft choices and become one-and-doners.)
The only problem with this scenario—and it’s a good one to have except for sentimental reasons—is that come next season, Barnes’ team won’t be runts any more. The return of Fulkerson and the recent emergence of 6-foot-10-inch sophomore Kyle Alexander, who’s spent most of the past two seasons riding the bench, will give the Vols a big-man presence. And Barnes’ lone recruit for next season, as of now, is also 6 feet 10 inches.
When he was formerly the coach at Texas, Barnes was renowned for his prize recruits who went on to illustrious NBA careers: Kevin Durant, Lamarcus Aldridge, Tristan Thompson, Avery Bradley, D.J. Augustin, Cory Joseph, P.J. Tucker, and the list goes on. But I will give the veteran coach more credit for molding a Tennessee team that shows a lot of promise with a bunch of unheralded players whom the prime college programs overlooked.
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