Good news: Tennessee basketball is waiting in the wings, ready to storm onto the stage and claim the spotlight.
Bad news: Distinguished scribes, broadcasters and bloggers who think they know about such things predict the Volunteers will be the 13th best team in the Southeastern Conference. Only LSU is projected as worse.
Could go either way: National stats analyst Ken Pomeroy says the Vols will be better than that. ESPN Insider Jeff Goodman says there are 11 SEC possibles for the big show but not Tennessee. Players say they believe this will be an NCAA Tournament entry.
I believe, out in the real world, there are more doubters than true believers.
In two campaigns, Rick Barnes teams have finished below his reputation. The Vols were up and down last season. They won a few hearts and even gained some national attention but …
In the middle of February, they blew a 14-point second-half lead and lost at home to so-so Georgia. After that, they dropped four of five, capped by another second-half fade and fall to even worse LSU.
Tennessee ended up 8-10 in the league, 16-16 overall. That was a bit better than the previous year – 6-12 and 15-19. What the coach accomplished at Texas now seems long, long ago.
Recruiting efforts have not won wide applause. Tennessee is never mentioned in spirited fights for five-star studs. Blessedly, Tennessee was not mentioned in the FBI investigation of criminal conduct by recruiters and sports apparel companies.
This team dresses well but is light on star power. No Volunteer was selected on the preseason all-SEC team. No not one.
Robert Hubbs, Shambari Phillips and Lew Evans are gone but there are better explanations for low expectations. Tennessee recruiting has ranked 11th, seventh and 11th by league standards during the Barnes years. With the exception of Kentucky, league standards have not been all that high.
Sophomore Grant Williams, a genuine warrior, figures to again be the most valuable Volunteer. He averaged 12.6 points. He led the team in rebounding. He blocked more shots. He committed too many fouls.
Sophomores Jordan Bowden, Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner and junior Admiral Schofield are returnees with some scoring potential. Kyle Alexander is a 6-11 junior who works hard but still doesn’t have an offensive game. Redshirt freshmen John Fulkerson and Jalen Johnson are real possibilities – if healthy.
Barnes brought in five new players – veteran guards Chris Darrington (junior college all-American) and James Daniel (post-grad point), intriguing wing Yves Pons and a pair of forwards, Derrick Walker for now and Zach Kent for maybe later.
“I think we’ve improved all-around,” Barnes said.
The coach has not made any rash promises. He said the team had a good off-season. He said the players want to get better.
Hard to tell what Barnes really thinks about this challenge. He says he will be interested in the final poll but isn’t concerned about pre-season opinions. He says his sophomores have improved but is not lavish in praise. He obviously had doubts about guard play.
Walker, 6-8 and stout, might be the inside surprise. He is football tough. Barnes says he has a high basketball IQ, that he defends and is an excellent passer.
Curiosity about Yves Pons is more likely to sell tickets. This lad of 18 looks like an NFL tight end. He is an athlete, chiseled 6-5 and 208. He supposedly has only two per cent body fat. He smiles when teammates call him Tarzan.
He has not yet swung from tree to tree but he did leap over three young fans seated in folding chairs on his way to a show-and-tell two-handed dunk at the Rocky Top Tip-Off event. The crowd, such as it was, loved it.
Pons, born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is the adopted son of Babeth and Jean-Claude Pons of Fuveau, France. Offensive skills are a work in progress but he did more than enough to stand out in age-group international play. Yves was on the French national team.
There is a story behind how he happens to be at Tennessee. Most of the world assumed Pons would go pro and was late learning that he intended to play college basketball. The family chose not to promote his recruitment.
UT assistant Mike Schwartz got a tip. Oh no, he says, it is Barnes who has many contacts overseas. The head coach said the assistant was the main man. The assistant said Barnes’ history of developing NBA talent was the primary selling point.
By the time most schools discovered Pons was available, they were fresh out of scholarships. Tennessee found one.
Seven dollars will get you in to see Pons, Williams and friends on Thursday evening in an exhibition against Carson-Newman. This is a best buy – two hours of relief from worrying about football.
Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is [email protected]