Parrish: Tennessee basketball best positioned for bounce-back year

Gary Parrish is high on a men’s Tennessee basketball Volunteers resurgence in 2020-2021.

We don’t know for sure if Tennessee basketball would have missed the NCAA Tournament in 2019-2020 because they never got to play an SEC Tournament game. However, simply by being on the bubble with a 17-14 regular season record, they took a major step back from the 2018-2019 team that spent a month at No. 1 and reached the Sweet 16.

That was all expected, though, with the loss of four starters. This year, however, a bounce-back seems obvious with the return of all but one player from its roster during the second half of the season, a top five recruiting class, the addition of power forward E.J. Anosike and the eligibility of Victor Bailey Jr.

Taking all that into account, there are some people who are looking at Tennessee basketball as a national title contender. What’s clear is that the level of regression they took this past year should be mirrored in a resurgence in 2020-2021, and Gary Parrish of CBS Sports named the Vols as his bounce-back team. Here’s a bit of what he said.

Assuming Yves Pons withdraws from the 2020 NBA Draft, Tennessee will return five of its top six scorers and pair them with the fourth-best recruiting class in the country, according to 247Sports, headlined by five-star prospects Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson. That’s a super-strong roster for Rick Barnes, who will have a realistic chance to finish in the top two of the SEC standings for the third time in a four-year span. In fact, in my opinion, Tennessee should be the favorite in the SEC on paper, just ahead of John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, who are basically starting from scratch once again.

Parrish noted that the Vols’ regression last year was made rougher because their key player, Lamonte Turner, had to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery in December. He was replaced by a true freshman in Santiago Vescovi.

Now, not only does Vescovi have more experience, but another player the Vols added mid-season, Uros Plavsic, should also be more familiar with the system. As a seven-footer, he could become a major part of the rotation.

While it is true that Yves Pons will give Rick Barnes more options into his rotation, the Vols actually have a chance to still be elite without Pons. We mentioned Anosike. The graduate transfer averaged a double-double with the Sacred Heart Pioneers last year and is the perfect type of player for Barnes to develop: a 6’6″ 245-pound big man who combines power and finesse.

Other players that Parrish didn’t mention include Josiah-Jordan James, a five-star combo guard  in Tennessee basketball’s 2019 class who will be a sophomore this year, and John Fulkerson, the big man who became the Vols’ best scorer down the stretch of last season.

Add in four-star wing Corey Walker Jr. in this class and Olivier Nkamhoua, Davonte Gaines and Drew Pember all entering their sophomore seasons, and this roster is loaded. It’s easy to see why a bounce-back is expected with them.