Last season, the Tennessee basketball team was projected to finish 13th in the SEC. The Vols were tied as the fifth-youngest team in the nation, and “experts” didn’t expect much from UT’s inexperienced roster. Despite that lack of recognition in the preseason, the Vols exceeded all expectations and achieved an overall record of 26-9 while winning a share of the SEC regular-season championship.
Now, the Vols are starting the 2018-19 season with one of the most experienced rosters in all of college basketball. All five starters return, as does nearly every major contributor from last year’s squad.
The reigning SEC Champions have the chance to make history by earning their highest preseason ranking ever in the AP poll. While some teams might revel in such accomplishments, head coach Rick Barnes said the Vols know they must now hit the reset button.
“The question will be, ‘Can we improve as much each day as we did a year ago?’ That’s really our whole process that we talk about here,” Barnes said. “Can we get better today?”
During the team’s annual Media Day Thursday, Barnes emphasized that adding depth to an already talented roster is a major priority for this team.
“Up to this point, it has been competitive, and that’s what we want,” Barnes said. “What we really wanted to do was get as many reps throughout the summer leading into this fall for Kyle Alexander, Derrick Walker, John Fulkerson and Zach Kent.”
When asked about Barnes’ approach, Alexander said, “He’s not letting anyone hide this year. Everyone has a role that they play, and he’s making sure they play (that role).”
Alexander had 57 offensive rebounds as a junior last season, the fourth-most ever in a season by a Volunteer. He also ranked sixth in the SEC in offensive rebounds per game. Entering his senior campaign, Alexander said the team knows its goals.
“We’re not going to get complacent because we know what our goal is, and we know what we still want to accomplish,” he said.
A projected top-10 team nationally, Tennessee likely will enter the season ranked for the first time since the 2010-11 campaign. While rankings sometimes affect a team’s approach, junior point guard Jordan Bone said rankings don’t matter to this group.
“We’re going to stay consistent with what we do, and I feel like everything else will take care of itself,” Bone said.
As Tennessee looks to win back-to-back SEC titles for the first time in program history, the team’s bond is closer than ever.
“We’re like brothers, and we all care for each other,” Bone said. “When it comes to the court, we make plays for each other. It’s just amazing to have a group of guys that look out for you.”
Barnes said Thursday he is happy for the team because he knows the work each player has invested, but he knows that fan excitement and media buzz will not win championships.
“It’s going to continue to take hard work. It’s going to take commitment. It’s going to take focus,” said Barnes.
“We’re ranked. We’re good. Let’s go and see what we’ve got.”