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No. 7 Tennessee: With everyone back, are the Vols a national title favorite?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 7 Tennessee.


The Vols were one of the best stories in all of college basketball last season.

They were picked 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC in the preseason. They didn’t have a single player on their roster that was ranked in the top 100 of their recruiting class, according to 247 Sports composite rankings. They were led by a coach in Rick Barnes that not enough people respected and that some believed had taken Tennessee in an effort to land one, last payday before hanging up the clipboard.

And all they did was go out and win a share of the SEC regular season title in a year where the SEC sent eight teams to the NCAA tournament.

Not bad.

Barnes, as you might imagine, was named the SEC Coach of the Year as a result.

Perhaps the best news of all is that the Vols will return essentially everyone from that team. All five starters are back, including SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams. Their sixth-man, who played starters’ minutes and was the third-leading scorer on the team, is back as well. Their bench, which was young and unproved last season, has another year of experience under their belt and adds four-star freshman D.J. Burns, who, while talented, is year another sub-100 prospect.

When it comes down to it, the only real difference between this Tennessee team and last year’s Tennessee team is that this team is going to have to face the full weight of expectation.

The Vols are no longer a secret.

They are the reigning SEC champs, a preseason top ten team and one of, if not the biggest game on the schedule for everyone they are going to face this season.

How the Vols handle that burden will determine just how much success they have this season.

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TENNESSEE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

There were really good last year, and they are essentially the same team this year.

It really is going to be that simple with the Vols.

They bring back the SEC Player of the Year in Grant Williams. They bring back the three guards that they featured when they played their small lineup. They bring back Admiral Schofield, who is the physical, no-nonsense wing that can guard-up, rebound the ball and shoot nearly-40 percent from three. Starting center Kyle Alexander is now a senior, and he’ll be pushed for minutes as Rick Barnes added frontcourt depth with the addition of four-star recruit D.J. Burns and the return of Zach Kent. Throw in the fact that Yves Pons, one of the very-best athletes in the SEC regardless of sport, might actually have a better feel of how to be a basketball player this season, and it stands to season that the Vols are going to be just as good, if not better, this year.

I’m not sure how else to put it.

And if anything, the roster additions that Barnes made should help.

Tennessee was one of the best defensive teams in the country last season. They finished sixth-nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, and they did so because they forced a lot of turnovers and were terrific at contesting shots and running teams off the three-point line. Their weakness on that end of the floor was the fact that they allowed their opponents a 31.1 offensive rebounding percentage — 281st nationally — but it would stand to reason adding more size would help here.

Right?

Either way, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Tennessee is going to be worse this season than last when thinking strictly about the X’s and O’s of it all …

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BUT TENNESSEE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

… but basketball isn’t just about the X’s and O’s.

In 2017, Northwestern made the NCAA tournament for the first time in the history of the program. They then won a game in the tournament and, if it wasn’t for a questionable goaltending call and the ensuing technical foul on Chris Collins, the Wildcats might have actually picked off eventual runners-up Gonzaga in the second round.

The following season, Northwestern returned everyone and found themselves ranked in the preseason top 20 before falling off a cliff. The Wildcats finished below .500, losing their final seven games of the season while earmarking what was supposed to be a breakout year for the program with a 6-12 Big Ten record.

“I kind of knew we weren’t ready,” star point guard Bryant McIntosh said at the time. “We weren’t really prepared to play a good team. We weren’t mentally ready. I don’t think we were in shape physically,” while Collins added that the team had lost their edge. “We didn’t have that same hunger,” he said.

Northwestern thought they had made it, they eased up instead of striving to be better and it cost them.

This is precisely what Tennessee needed to avoid this offseason. Complacency and satisfaction is the most dangerous thing that a team like these Vols can face. This is not a group that is going to out-talent anyone at this level. I’m not sure there is an NBA player on the roster. They win games because they work their tails off at all times: Defensively, on the glass, in transition, cutting on offense and, perhaps most importantly, during offseason workouts.

It is not easy to go from being the hunter to the hunted, and Tennessee is going to find that out this year.

Grant Williams (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

I wonder where the Vols can improve individually.

As a team, there is a clear answer to this: They can get better on the defensive glass. The way that their roster is composed and that they execute their defense is always going to leave them liable to giving up second-chance points — this is what happens when you play small and you gamble for steals — but they couldn’t even grab seven out of every ten potential defensive rebounds. That number can get better.

I’m curious which player on this team can take a step forward.

Because it looks like the six rotations players they are bringing back have more or less maxed themselves out.

Williams can become a better three-point shooter. That will help. Turner, Bowden and Bone all shot under 40.3% from two-point range last season. That certainly can improve. Those guards have a tendency to turn the ball over a little too much. That can get better as well.

But those are the margins.

What I’m struggling to see is where a someone can go from being a role player to an all-SEC player. I don’t think they have a breakout star, and to me, that is the difference between Tennessee being considered a top ten team and the Vols being looked at as a real contender to Kentucky in the SEC title race.

If that happens — if, say, Admiral Schofield becomes the best wing in the league — then we may have to start talking about Tennessee as a basketball school.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

Outside of the teams in the top four, Tennessee to me has the narrowest gap between their ceiling and their floor of any team in the top 15 or 20 this season.

We know they’re going to be really good because they were really good last season and this is basically the same team. We also know there may not be an NBA player on this roster, and it is not easy to win at the highest level in college hoops without having the kind of talent that can play in the NBA.

What does all that mean?

It’s hard to fathom Tennessee falling out of the top three in the SEC.

It also seems unlikely that Tennessee will be cutting down the nets on the final weekend of the season.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 8 Virginia
No. 9 North Carolina
No. 10 Auburn
No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Duke adds to 2019 class with top-30 guard Cassius Stanley

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Duke’s already monster 2019 class got even stronger Monday.

Cassius Stanley, a four-star guard from California, pledged to the Blue Devils to give them their fifth recruit rated in the top-35 nationally in the class.

“I’ll be joining the brotherhood. Go Duke,” Stanley said in his announcement video posted to social media.

“He wants to come in and start or contribute as a starter on a highly competitive team,” Jerome Stanley, Cassius’ father, told 247Sports. “He’s used to winning and he plans to come in there and win. He doesn’t plan to be a project, he wants to step on the floor immediately and help them win.”

Stanley’s commitment only further reinforces how strong Duke is on the recruiting trail as it now has five-stars Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore signed along with top-40 Boogie Ellis of San Diego.

The Blue Devils may have lost their high-profile trio of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, but with these major additions along with Tre Jones, Marques Bolden and Alex O’Connell slated to return, they’ll be looking at another top-10 (and maybe higher) preseason ranking after a disappointing Elite Eight departure from the NCAA tournament last month.

Udoka Azubuike returning to Kansas for senior season

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Injuries have robbed Kansas center Udoka Azubuike of nearly two full seasons of college basketball. They also likely played a major part on while he’ll be back for his fourth year on campus.

The 7-footer will return to Lawrence and the Jayhawks for his senior season rather than declare for the NBA draft, the school announced Monday.

“We’re all very excited about Udoka making the decision not to enter the draft,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement released by the school. “Unfortunately for him, injury is the reason as he still cannot participate (at) what would be the NBA combine or workouts for the NBA teams. We really anticipated that this would be the year he would enter the draft but that was also based on him having an injury-free year.”

Azubuike was averaging 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 70.5 percent from the field before a wrist injury cut his season short in January after just nine games. He also played just 11 games as a freshman due to injury.

In his lone full healthy season, Azubuike averaged 13 points and 7 rebounds per game as he made 77 percent of his shots from the field, making him nearly an unstoppable force for teams across the Big 12. His return makes Kansas, the 10th-ranked team in our preseason Top 25, an even stronger favorite to regain its Big 12 crown after Texas Tech and Kansas State shared the league title last year to deprive Kansas of its spot atop the league for the first time in 14 years as it battled injuries, suspensions and lackluster play.

The 21 most important ‘stay-or-go’ NBA draft early entry decisions

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This single most important and influential decision when if came to this year’s NBA draft belonged to Cassius Winston.

The Grand Maester of the Michigan State offense, Winston put together an All-American season as he led Michigan State to the 2019 Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and a trip to the Final Four. Over the weekend, the 6-foot point guard announced that he will be returning to school for his senior season, immediately ensuring that the Spartans will be the No. 1 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25 and locking them in as favorites to win next year’s national title.

But he is far from the only important decision that is left to be made in this year’s NBA draft process. At 11:59 p.m. on April 21st, the deadline to declare for the NBA draft came and went. The players who put there name into the mix — more than 130 that we know of — will have until May 29th to pull their names out of the draft.

Here are 21 decisions that will have the biggest impact on the 2019-2020 college basketball season.

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KERRY BLACKSHEAR

Blackshear might be the single-most influential player in all of college basketball, but to figure out where he is going to have influence, the 6-foot-10, 250 pound forward has a couple of decisions to make. For starters, he has declared for the NBA draft, and given that he is 22 years old and more or less fully developed as a player, now may be the best time for him to make the jump to the professional ranks. If he does decide to return to school, he’s going to have to decide where to play: He’s a redshirt junior and a graduate transfer, which means that the Virginia Tech big man may end up being a former Virginia Tech big man. Every school in college basketball will want to get involved. We’ll see where he ends up.

IGNAS BRAZDEIKIS and JORDAN POOLE, Michigan

Michigan essentially had two players on their roster last season that you could trust to be threats on the offensive end of the floor night in and night out: Poole and Brazdeikis. Now it looks like there is a real chance that both of them to could end following Charles Matthews lead and remain in the NBA draft despite the fact that neither look like they will be a first round pick.

That’s a major concern for John Beilein, because with Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers all back, Michigan will have a case to be the preseason No. 1 team in the country if both Iggy and Swaggy Poole return. If both end up gone, the Wolverines may never break 60 points in a game next year.

DEVON DOTSON, QUENTIN GRIMES and UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas

This one is tricky because we have yet to get official word on whether or not Azubuike has actually declared for the draft*; he did last season and ultimately opted to return to school. Of the three, I think Dotson is probably the most important, as the Jayhawks don’t have anyone nearly as good as he is at the point. If Azubuike opts to enter the draft, Bill Self does still have David McCormack on his roster, who will be an adequate replacement. Grimes is the x-factor here. A former top ten recruit, I think he’s probably the most likely to keep his name in the draft this year even if it’s as a second round pick. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the best plan of action — I do think there is still a chance that he could come back to Kansas and play his way into the first round with a big sophomore year — but I get it. If he’s gone, the Jayhawks do have some perimeter pieces that will be able to fill the void in Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett.

With all three back, we’re talking about Kansas as the surefire best team in the Big 12 and potentially as a top five team. If they’re all gone, then it is going to be a long, long season in Lawrence.

*(Since this posting, Azubuike has announced that he is returning to school.)

Grant Williams (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

GRANT WILLIAMS and JORDAN BONE, Tennessee

This may sound counterintuitive, but I think that it is true: Bone is the more likely of the two to leave school this year, but Williams would have a much bigger impact on the Tennessee program if he opts to return. Bone was a bit inconsistent as a junior, but when he was at his best, he was the best guard in the SEC. Losing that hurts, but the truth is that with Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden and Josiah James in the mix, there is enough backcourt talent in Knoxville to withstand his departure.

I’m not sure that is true with Williams. Tennessee does have some big bodies on their roster, but Williams would be in the conversation with Cassius Winston for preseason National Player of the Year if he opts to come back to Tennessee for another run at a national title. And with Williams back, they would very much be in that conversation. As it stands, Tennessee is No. 22 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

A source close to the situation told NBC Sports that they think there’s a “50-50” chance that Williams is back.

KYLE GUY and MAMADI DIAKITE, Virginia

I fully expect that both Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter will remain in the NBA draft for good. That leaves Guy and Diakite as the players who are up in the air. Everyone should know about Guy by now. The reigning Final Four MOP, Guy led Virginia in scoring last season and is one of the best shooters in all of college basketball. For a program that lacks perimeter depth, Guy’s return would obviously be enormous.

But Diakite’s return is just as impactful. He’s such a monster on the defensive end of the floor, and I’m not sure people realize just how good he is. His offensive game is coming along, but the value is that he would be a perfect pairing next to Jay Huff if Virginia wants to play big and that he is versatile enough to defend on the perimeter if needed when Virginia plays small. It’s not a coincidence that the most productive six-game stretch of Diakite’s career came during the run to the NCAA title, when he averaged 10.5 points, 8.2 boards and 2.7 blocks.

Kyle Guy (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

JORDAN NWORA, Louisville

There are a few Louisville players that have declared for the NBA draft, but for my money, Nwora is the one that matters the most, and it is not close. One of college basketball’s most improved players, Nwora is will be a first-team All-ACC player and a potential All-American if he comes back. He will be the veteran scorer that the Cardinals need as Chris Mack brings in a loaded, six-man recruiting class. With Nwora back, the Cards will be a top ten team.

KILLIAN TILLIE and ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga

Assuming that Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke are both gone, Tillie becomes the most important player on Gonzaga’s frontcourt if he opts to return to school. And Norvell slides right in as the projected leading scorer. Frankly, with those two and Corey Kispert on the roster, I think the Zags will have more than enough scoring to keep things rolling as their talented six-man recruiting class gets some experience.

The reason they are as low on this list as they are is that I still think there is a ceiling to what Gonzaga can be because of their point guard situation. Right now, they are in a position where they’ll have to decide between freshman Brock Ravet and sophomores Greg Foster Jr. and Joel Ayayi. I would not be surprised if there was a grad transfer that was in the mix here at some point.

ANTHONY COWAN, Maryland

The Terps already got word that they are getting Jalen Smith back for his sophomore season. With the rest of last year’s promising recruiting class in the mix — Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala, Ricky Lindo — the only thing they need to ensure that they are a preseason top ten team is their star point guard. Cowan, if he returns, will be in the mix for preseason All-American honors.

MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

This one isn’t difficult. Seton Hall returns basically everyone from last season if Powell comes back. They should still be relevant in the Big East if he doesn’t, but he was arguably the most dangerous scorer in college basketball this side of Markus Howard last year, and assuming he’s back in the fold, we have the Pirates at No. 12 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

Myles Powell (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

PAYTON PRITCHARD and KENNY WOOTEN, Oregon

Assuming that Louis King ends up staying in the draft, Pritchard and Wooten are the two guys that will matter for Oregon next season. They are the two pieces that allow Dana Altman’s system to work the way that it is supposed to work — a high-scoring lead guard and an uber-athletic five that can protect the rim and finish lobs. With both of them back, I think Oregon is a top 10-15 team and the best team in the Pac-12.

E.J. MONTGOMERY, Kentucky

Montgomery is interesting here. He’s super-talented, and he plays a position for Kentucky where the Wildcats are going to really lack some depth this season, but we’ve yet to see him prove that he is anything more than ‘loaded with potential’ at the SEC level. I think Kentucky needs him because they need to keep bodies in their frontcourt, but I’m on a wait-and-see mode before I decide just how much of an impact I think that he is going to make.

CHUMA OKEKE and JARED HARPER, Auburn

I would make the argument that these two were the two most important players on Auburn’s team this past season. If I had to guess, I would say that Okeke is probably gone. He proved just how good he is this past season, and his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in the NCAA tournament likely won’t be complete until December. If he returns to school, it might end up being a two-year decision, but if he comes back and is fully healthy, he is miles better than Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and the other options the Tigers have in their frontcourt.

Harper is a bit more up in the air, and while he was terrific this past season, especially in March, I do think that J’Von McCormick’s emergence has given Bruce Pearl some breathing room. He can do a lot of the things that Harper does, just not quite as well.

NEEMIAS QUETA, Utah State

Utah State is currently the No. 16 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25, and much of that has to do with the fact that we are assuming Queta ends up returning to school. His size, his ability to protect the rim and how well he finishes makes him extremely valuable in the Mountain West and helps the Aggies matchup with teams from bigger conferences.

Lawsuit filed after two casinos couldn’t take March Madness bets

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A casino operator is suing a tech company after a contract dispute shuttered its sports betting platform at two West Virginia casinos ahead of the NCAA Tournament.

A Friday news release from Delaware North says it’s filed a civil suit seeking monetary damages against United Kingdom-based Miomni Gaming and its CEO, Michael P. Venner.

Miomni’s contract dispute with a third-party technology supplier has prevented Delaware North’s Mardi Gras Casino in Nitro and the Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack from taking new sports wagers since March 6.

The casino operator’s lawsuit says Miomni misrepresented its ownership of a key part of the sports betting platform.

A voicemail left with Miomni was not immediately returned.

The suit was filed late Thursday in Delaware.

Gonzaga’s Tillie, Norvell declare for NBA draft

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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) – Gonzaga junior forward Killian Tillie and sophomore guard Zach Norvell will both test the NBA waters.

The school said this weekend that both players will submit their names for the NBA draft, but could return to school.

Under new NCAA rules, college players can retain the services of an agent during the evaluation process but must end the relationship and withdraw from the draft by May 29. Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke have also declared for the NBA draft.

A 6-foot-5 guard from Chicago, Norvell started 36 of 37 games in 2019, averaging 14.9 points and 3.1 assists. He led the West Coast Conference with 97 3-pointers and 37 percent from the arc.

Norvell averaged 12.7 points as a redshirt freshman in 2017-18. The Zags have reached the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament when Norvell has played.

Tillie had an injury-filled junior season, missing 22 games with multiple issues. Tillie appeared in only 15 games and averaged 6.2 points and 3.9 rebounds. He shot 50 percent in his limited action. He was a preseason all-West Coast Conference selection after a sophomore season where the 6-foot-10 native of France averaged 12.9 points and 5.9 rebounds.