Tennessee basketball moves up in way-too-early top 25 but should be higher

Despite no changes to either team’s starting five, Tennessee basketball was able to move past the Auburn Tigers in this month’s way-too-early top 25 by Jeff Borzello of ESPN. Rick Barnes’ team is now ranked No. 12, while Bruce Pearl’s team fell to No. 13.

However, it’s a bit shocking the Vols aren’t higher given the fact that they are a top five team if you combine recruiting success with returning talent, as we wrote about last week. One issue explain’s Borzello’s ranking, though: lack of size in the projected starting lineup.

In Borzello’s projections, Tennessee basketball will run Olivier Nkamhoua at the five and Josiah-Jordan James at the four, giving them a small lineup. Here’s a bit of the breakdown he gave for the Vols given the roster they have put together.

The addition of five-star recruit Julian Phillips gives the Volunteers another versatile wing forward option to go alongside Josiah-Jordan James. And with Zakai Zeigler likely to run the show next to first-team All-SEC returnee Santiago Vescovi, Barnes is going to want his four best players on the floor for the majority of the game.

What Borzello misses about this lineup, though, is that Uros Plavsic is not the only player who brings a size advantage. Despite the transfer of Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, Jonas Aidoo is perfectly positioned to take a huge step forward, and at 6’11”, he can provide the same value Plavsic does.

There’s a great chance Barnes alternates those two at the five. He could potentially still use James at the four and have Nkamhoua coming off the bench, or he could rotate James, Nkahoua and Julian Phillips and the three and the four. The versatility is clearly there.

That’s also true with Santiago Vescovi, Zakai Zeigler and Tyreke Key. Although Zeigler is specifically a point guard, Barnes could move Vescovi or key over to the role when Zeigler needs a break and run them together. Simply put, he’s got enough to coach as if he’s going 10-deep with eight guys when you look at the roster.

Beyond that, though, he should be able to go deeper. Again, Aidoo is expected to take a step forward, but Jahmai Mashack is another wing who is entering his sophomore season and was once a four-star. He could develop.

Then there are two other highly touted players in four-star wing D.J. Jefferson and four-star combo guard B.J. Edwards. Add in three-star power forward Tobe Awaka reclassifying, and it’s easy to see why Tennessee basketball should be higher. They have plenty of depth and belong in the top 10 right now.