The Tennessee Vols are facing multiple obstacles to start the season.
They lost two of their best players from last season to the NBA draft. Their seven-foot transfer, Uros Plavsic, was denied eligibility by the NCAA. Josiah-Jordan James, the team’s lone five-star recruit, has been a non-factor so far. Senior guard Lamonte Turner is battling a lingering shoulder injury from last season, which has limited his shooting ability. Finally, nobody on the team is over six-foot-nine, and nobody with experience is over six-foot-six.
Not to mention the fact they played three top 25 teams in the first seven games of the season — all away from Thompson-Boling Arena.
Despite all of this, the Volunteers find themselves at 6-1 and ranked No. 21 in the country.
The main reason for UT’s early success goes back to head coach Rick Barnes. He preaches team defense and fundamentals, and it shows. Tennessee’s defense only allows 57.7 points-per-game, which is tied for No. 14 in the country. With a defense like this, no game is ever out of reach.
This defense was on display in Friday’s game against a very good Florida State team. A game in which senior guards Turner and Jordan Bowden did not play well. Tennessee turned the ball over 21 times and still only lost by three. The Vols forced 13 turnovers of their own, which allowed them to get back into the game late in the second half.
I thought we showed a lot of determination in the Florida State game because we were down and fighting uphill the whole way…We showed toughness. #Vols
— Eric Cain (@_Cainer) December 2, 2019
I believe the Vols’ hot start is not a fluke and they can turn what many thought would be a rebuilding team into a top three team in the SEC.
There are four teams currently ahead of the Vols in the SEC standings: Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky, and Mississippi State.
While beating the Tigers and Wildcats is certainly possible — especially in Thompson Boling — taking both games in the regular season series will be quite difficult.
A two-game sweep over Arkansas is far more likely to help the Vols move up in the standings. The Razorbacks are currently undefeated, but they haven’t exactly faced stiff competition. The best team they’ve beat so far is South Dakota (6-2). No disrespect to the Coyotes, but they aren’t exactly SEC talent.
The same can be said for Mississippi State. They currently sit at 6-1, but their best win is against Tulane. They have also yet to play a true road game. Tennessee only plays Mississippi State once, so the game against the Bulldogs in Starkville will be a must-win if the standings stay the same.
In my opinion, the only SEC team behind Tennessee in the standings who poses a major threat is LSU. The Tigers are a very good team, but they have to come to Thompson-Boling for the lone game against the Vols. The Rocky Top Rowdies will be loud in a revenge game from last season against LSU.
Coach Barnes has his team playing stingy defense and getting to the line. If the Volunteers can succeed in these areas, every game they play is winnable.
Looking at how the SEC is currently unfolding, I believe finishing the regular season at third in the SEC is very possible.
PHOTO CREDIT: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports