This might be Tennessee’s best men’s basketball team

Marvin Westwestwords

Cheers. It is finally basketball time in Tennessee.

At least some of the football problems are in cold storage. There is now space in the spotlight for John Fulkerson, Yves Pons and a floor full of younger Volunteers.

Optimism abounds. Smart members of the media predicted an SEC championship. Now and then, they get it right.

Rick Barnes

Rick Barnes foresees a happy new year. He has what may be the school’s most talented squad – as in ever. There may not be an instant superstar but there is great depth, enthusiastic defenders, exceptional speed and young athletes with rare potential.

How did this happen? It appears Barnes’ assistants are excellent recruiters. Barnes can coach. He is a master at development when players are tough enough, physically and mentally, to take his technique.

To his credit, Barnes is producing a product that might come close to matching what we are buying. Indeed, he smiles each time he goes near First Horizon. He and the bank are best friends. His contract calls for $4.95 million with annual raises of $250,000 until he gets to $5.7 million and old age. There is a beautiful bonus and incentive plan.

An NCAA championship would be worth another $1.5 million. Rick would get only $1.2 million if the Vols finished second, only $1 million for reaching the Final Four. Bonus generosity steps down to a mere $200,000 for reaching the tournament.

Alas, the coach can qualify for only one bonus from March or April madness. Kind and gentle Phillip Fulmer will only go so far.

You are correct, unlike some in the neighborhood, Rick agreed to a temporary virus reduction in income. Rick Barnes’ agent is not selfish or greedy. Of course not. No way.

While many were not looking, the Vols have already won six games at Thompson-Boling Arena. Victories over Colorado and Cincinnati were competitive enough to be instructive. Romps past Appalachian State, Tennessee Tech, St. Joseph’s of Philadelphia and South Carolina-Upstate were good exercise.

Cumulative statistics put the competition in perspective. Tennessee outscored that crowd, 485 to 316. Tennessee hit 102 free throws. Six opponents combined for 47 of 68. The Vols took the ball toward the hoop.

Tennessee won on the backboards, 244 to 170. Tennessee had 45 fewer turnovers.

Disclaimer: Those foes were unlike what the Vols will find in the middle of Wednesday night in Columbia, Mo. Cuonzo Martin has a good team. If there are friendly whistles, they are likely to favor Missouri.

So far so good. Those were fun introductions to Oregon transfer Victor Bailey and highly regarded freshmen Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson. We have verified that sophomores Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James are better than they were last season.

Graduate transfer E.J. Anosike has confirmed his rebounding reputation. Olivier Nkamhoua, 6-8 and strong, sees an opportunity and is reaching for it. This is important. Tennessee needs post help.

Davonte Gaines has a part-time job. Barnes believes seven-foot Uros Plavsic is getting a wee bit better every day. We hear that No. 3 freshman Corey Walker has considerable promise but has been gimpy. The coach says 6-10 Drew Pember has a future.

Springer and Johnson are the kind of five-star freshmen typically on display at Kentucky. Both are possible one-and-dones.

Everybody, including Duke and North Carolina, wanted Springer, a 6-4 shooting guard. He is from Charlotte and the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Rivals frown and wonder how much edge Tennessee had in the recruiting race. Springer played AAU ball for former Vol point guard Bobby Maze.

Springer was rated the No. 16 prospect in the country. That is the third highest signed by the Vols, just behind Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson. Recruiting gurus had not yet invented the marvelous numbers comparisons when Stu Aberdeen was bringing in Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King.

Johnson, 6-5 and 180, played at Webb School in Bell Buckle. He was ranked one spot behind Springer.

There are some very interesting background tidbits. Keon is the son of former Auburn standout Conswella Sparrow Johnson, a two-time all-SEC player. The Johnsons are very serious people. Keon’s commitment ceremony was at Bird Street Church of Christ in Shelbyville.

The event opened with prayer. The family gathered at the altar for the announcement of his college choice. The theme was “Thy will be done.”

Johnson is one of the best athletes in the country. He is dynamic going to the rim. Quickness and speed mean he can change ends on the court faster than most. Look for him in transition.

Here is the best part: Both freshmen play defense as if they love it. Neither appears to have an ego problem. Both did their homework on how Barnes does what Barnes does. Neither fainted.

Both look like future NBA players. Both look like SEC stars and Tennessee starters. Their place in the lineup would be automatic except Vescovi, James and Bailey look pretty good, too.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected].

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