By Alex Norman
It’s a shame that we rarely know that we are experiencing the good times until they are gone.
But I have a secret for you. The good times for Tennessee’s men’s basketball program are right now.
Back in 2015, then-Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart had to fire head coach Donnie Tyndall due to NCAA violations stemming from Tyndall’s time at Southern Miss, which came on the heels of NCAA violations stemming from Tyndall’s time at Morehead State. (But remember, Hart said the vetting of Tyndall was good!)
Hart replaced Tyndall with former Texas head coach Rick Barnes, who was booted after 402 wins and 17 seasons in Austin. It was to Hart’s good fortune that Barnes was available to help clean up the mess from his hiring of Tyndall.
The first two seasons for the Vols under Barnes weren’t exactly memorable. Tennessee went a combined 31-35, and heading into the 2017-2018 campaign the Vols were picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC. But Tennessee shocked the basketball world by winning a share of the conference title, and finishing the season 26-9. They were a basket away from a trip to the Sweet 16 as well.
With all of their key players returning, expectations were high entering the 2018-2019 season. And so far, they have not disappointed one bit. At the time this article was written, the Vols were 15-1, and ranked #3 in the nation. Their lone loss was an overtime affair on a neutral court to then-second ranked Kansas.
Last Tuesday they pounded Arkansas 106-87 in a game that wasn’t really that close. Tennessee’s starters scored 56 points and the bench chipped in 50. That’s an absurd balance for a basketball team.
Currently, there are six Vols that score in double figures. In their first four conference games, they have outscored their opponents by a total of 100 points, including a 41 point whitewash of Georgia. Against rival Florida, the Vols went into a hostile environment, withstood some early hot shooting from the Gators, and still won by 11 points, their first victory in Gainesville since 2012. Against former Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin and Missouri, the Vols outmuscled the Tigers on the way to an easy 24 point romp.
Need the Vols to win with inside play? National player of the year candidate Grant Williams (18.8 points/7.8 rebounds per game) is a matchup nightmare. Kyle Alexander (10.2 points/7.7 rebounds per game) is a force down low as well.
We haven’t even mentioned Admiral Schofield (17.7 points/6.3 rebounds per game), who can beat you near the glass or on the outside. He leads the Vols with 36 made 3-point field goals this season.
On the perimeter, Jordan Bone has become one of the best point guards in the country, leading the team with 101 assists (6.3 per game). Lamonte Turner is working his way back into the lineup, and scored a team high 21 points against Arkansas. Jordan Bowden had 19 points against Arkansas. The decision for Barnes to move Bowden from the starting lineup earlier in the season had paid dividends.
High flying Frenchman Yes Pons is a fan favorite that plays terrific defense. John Fulkerson has done a lot of the dirty work and shown a lot of improvement.
This team has an eight man rotation that rivals any squad in the country. They are high on experience and low on ego. They have a future hall of fame coach.
And darn if they aren’t a likable group. Fans have gravitated to this bunch of players like none since perhaps Bruce Pearl’s first couple of teams. It’s a stark contrast to the closed off nature of Jeremy Pruitt’s football program.
Look, Tennessee is going to lose some games. The second half of their conference schedule is tough, with two games against Kentucky and a regular season finale against Auburn. There’s no guarantee that this team wins an SEC title, nor gets to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
But that shouldn’t take away from what this is… one of the best times in program history to be a Tennessee fan. And after a decade of ineptitude across the board in that athletic department, you never know when something like this team will happen again.