Rick Barnes and the Boys took the SEC by storm last season. And nobody, I mean nobody, saw it coming. As has been talked about so often, the Vols were picked to finish second to last in the conference at SEC Media Day. Instead, the Vols made the media put eat their predictions.
Tennessee was SEC Regular Season Co-Champion, swept its primary rivals (Kentucky, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida), made it to Championship Sunday in the SEC Tournament and grabbed a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
It was also Tennessee’s first season with under 10 losses since the Bruce Pearl Era.
Barnes, needless to say, exceeded expectations. He took a team full of three-star talent to high levels of success. However, in doing so, he put the program a year ahead of schedule and raised the bar.
Many fans were disappointed that this team came up short of reaching what they were very capable of achieving. Now, in Year 4 of the Barnes Era with essentially the entire roster returning, fans will be expecting Tennessee to take the next step.
So, what’s the next step? Here’s the three biggest expectations that will be laid on the shoulders of Barnes and his squad…
Outright SEC regular season champions
While fans were jubilant after becoming co-SEC Champions, there was a bit of a sour taste left in their mouths. Vol Nation wanted to be outright champions. Nothing wrong with sharing it, but let’s be honest, being the lone champion is so much sweeter. Instead, Auburn was also able to claim with them after beating the Vols head to head during the regular season.
Yes, by SEC rules, the tie-breaker doesn’t apply in terms of regular season championships, but Auburn fans and other SEC fans teased Tennessee fans after the Vols celebrated their championship.
Win the SEC Tournament
The Vols were so close to being SEC Tourney champions, they could taste it. But, their arch rival Kentucky stole the title from them. It ripped the souls of Vol fans since not only did they not get to eat the whole enchilada, but that the denial was at the hands of Big Blue.
An Elite Eight appearance
One looming issue with Rick Barnes is that while he is easily one of the best coaches in college basketball right now, he struggles to find big time success in March. It had a lot to do with why Texas decided to part ways with Barnes.
Tennessee was fully capable of making the Sweet Sixteen last season, and after they proved they were easily a Sweet Sixteen caliber team, it quickly became the talk around town. Largely, fans were expecting a Sweet Sixteen appearance. Some fans, and even “the experts”, picked the Vols to make it to the Elite Eight, or even the Final Four.
They had the talent and depth, and the road was paved out very nicely for them. And, to make things sweeter, they were likely on a collision course with Kentucky. A third victory over Kentucky to eliminate them from the big dance would have surely shut up Big Blue nation quickly, and given Tennessee fans a sweet feeling of redemption.
Instead, they suffered one of the most heartbreaking losses in modern Tennessee basketball history at the hands of Loyola-Chicago.
It’s March Madness, and these types of upsets put the madness in March. But, the feeling of failure tasted all too familiar to a fan base that has had more than enough of being let down.
Of course, Loyola-Chicago ended up advancing to the Final Four, and that provided a small sense of solace, but all Vol Nation could do was hear about that Sister Jean and cringe.
Nevertheless, with what this squad has coming back and coming in, and it being the fourth year of the Barnes Era, the floor will be the Sweet Sixteen, with the goal being the Elite Eight and Final Four.
Many publications (like CBS) have pegged Tennessee as a preseason top 10 or even top 5 team for the 2018–19 season, and rightfully so. Everyone returns from last year’s squad, except James Daniel III, who graduated, and Chris Darrington, who transferred.
Admiral Schofield has also briefly tested the waters of the NBA Draft process to get a feel for where he would be selected. Since he still hasn’t hired an agent, it appears that he will likely stick around Knoxville for one last run. Even if he somehow shocks Big Orange Nation and decides to go pro at the last minute, the Vols will still be in very good shape.
Starters Grant Williams (SEC Player of the Year 2017–18), Kyle Alexander, Jordan Bone, and Jordan Bowden along with SEC Sixth Man of the Year Lamonte Turner all return among others. And the bench will be very deep, as well.
The Vols recently added senior grad transfer Khwan Fore (Richmond University). He is a very athletic guard, who excels in perimeter defense. They are also highly considering adding four-star center D.J. Burns (6-foot-9, 250 pounds) to their 2018 class.
Barnes is in an envious position with a powerful roster that has already won lots of games coming back. Obviously, if he can’t manage to get his team to the next level, fans will start to question him but until then, a road paved in gold is out ahead of the Vols.
Barnes has everything he needs to finally take UT a memorable run. It’s showtime.