KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee wants to show that its share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season title last year was an indication that the Volunteers’ program is on the rise.
Picked to finish 13th out of 14 SEC teams before the 2017-18 season, Tennessee instead went 26-9 and tied Auburn for first place in the conference . The Vols return their top six scorers from that team and enter this season as an SEC front-runner, but they say they haven’t lost the collective chip on their shoulder that came from being picked so low a year ago.
“If complacency sets in, that’s my fault — and I can assure you that’s not going to happen,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said Thursday at the Vols’ media day.
Tennessee has a legitimate shot at earning its best preseason ranking ever when the poll comes out later this month. The Vols never have been ranked higher than seventh in the preseason Top 25.
The Vols are chasing a couple of other firsts as well heading into their Nov. 9 season opener with Louisiana-Lafayette.
Tennessee will try to win back-to-back SEC titles for the first time ever while chasing its first Final Four appearance in school history. Tennessee’s closest call came when it lost 70-69 to Michigan State in a 2010 regional final.
The Vols’ 2017-18 season ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a 63-62 loss to Loyola-Chicago , which went on to reach the Final Four .
“I still think about the Loyola game a lot,” junior guard Jordan Bone said. “It just drives me to work hard and it drives our team to be better. We just want more. We fell short.”
Tennessee may have fallen short in March, but it still got plenty of rewards for its surprising season. Barnes earned a contract extension and raise that will earn him $21 million over the next six years. Grant Williams, a junior forward this season, was named the SEC 2017-18 player of the year by the league’s coaches .
Yet the Vols say they’re as motivated as ever. They want to make sure this season ends differently.
“It was the hardest summer ever just to get a rim to shoot on,” senior forward Admiral Schofield said. “Our whole team was in the gym the whole day. I would have to come in late at night just to get my extra work in because everyone’s been putting in time. I think everyone’s urgency and everyone’s focus is just being better than we were last year, not because of the outside noise, just because we want to go to a different level.”
The frontcourt duo of Schofield and Williams will lead Tennessee again this season. They averaged a combined 29.1 points and 12.4 rebounds last season. Barnes says he wants Williams to post a double-digit rebounding average, a significant rise for someone who had 6 boards per game last year.
Tennessee is seeking more consistency from 6-foot-11 senior forward Kyle Alexander, whose absence due to a hip injury limited the Vols in the Loyola game. The Vols also return the backcourt trio of Bone, Jordan Bowden and Lamonte’ Turner.
That veteran lineup assures Tennessee won’t get overlooked the way it did last season. The Vols say they’re ready for the challenge.
“We have a standard that we set,” Williams said. “Until we get there, we’re not going to be satisfied whatsoever.”
NOTE: Reserve forward Zach Kent will undergo an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee Friday. A timetable on his potential return will be announced afterward. Kent, a 6-foot-11 sophomore, appeared in two games last season.