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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

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.