A veteran-led Tennessee Volunteers team has its sights set on the second weekend of March Madness.
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The Tennessee Volunteers have been one of the more consistent programs in college basketball over the past six years, making the tournament every year it’s been held in that span. However, they still have yet to advance to the Elite 8 in Rick Barnes’ tenure, something he hasn’t done as a coach since D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams starred at Texas.
Last year, the Vols had their best chance to do so in years, needing just a win over 9-seed FAU to make the Elite 8 after beating Louisiana and Duke in the previous rounds with vintage Barnes defensive performances. However, the magic of the Owls bested the Vols, with UT going home after a 62-55 defeat. How the Volunteers would have fared had they still had point guard Zakai Zeigler, who was lost for the season with a February knee injury, was one notable NCAA Tournament “what if?”, but it’s a Tootsie Pop question: the world may never know.
Three key players from last year depart, along with center Uros Plavsic. Olivier Nkamhoua transferred to Michigan after a breakout performance against Duke in the NCAA Tournament, Julian Phillips decided to go pro, and Tyreke Key exhausted his eligibility. However, plenty of talent returns, most notably the aforementioned point guard Zeigler, who should be active to start the year, shooting guard Santiago Vescovi, a huge key to the perimeter, and forward Josiah-Jordan James, a great glue guy for the Vols. Big men Tobe Awaka and Jonas Aidoo will be fantastic on the defensive end, and they’re perfect for the Barnes system.
Enter transfers Dalton Knecht, from NoCo, and Jordan Gainey, from USC Upstate, and this team’s talent already rivals that of last year. Don’t forget guard Jahmai Mashack, who’s one of the most underrated guards in the SEC on the defensive side of the ball. The 6-4 guard averaged almost as many steals (1.4 per game) as assists (1.5 per game). Along with a handful of freshmen, both true and redshirt, (JP Estrella, Cameron Carr, D.J. Jefferson, Freddie Dilione V, and Cade Phillips), this roster is deeper and more improved than last year’s squad, although Zeigler’s health is paramount of course.
The starting lineup will likely consist of Zeigler, Vescovi, Knecht, James, and Awaka, in that order, although seeing Jonas Aidoo starting the year at the 5 spot wouldn’t be surprising either. Mashack and Gainey will be in the wings whenever one of Zeigler, Vescovi, or Knecht is out of the game, while the freshmen are all good enough to see minutes. Estrella may be the first freshman off the bench, however, with the younger guards having to play behind Zeigler, Vescovi, Knecht, Mashack, and Gainey.
Overall, this team might have around the same record as last year’s team, despite the roster improvement. That’s because the Vols absolutely loaded up their non-conference schedule and the fact that the SEC is unquestionably deep this year. The Vols travel to Wisconsin and North Carolina, and face Syracuse and either Purdue or Gonzaga in Maui. That’s not all, as the team also has to take on Illinois and NC State. This team might have the best defense in the nation, as every starter and quite a few rotational players have shown elite defensive ability either on the perimeter or around the rim.
An Elite 8 isn’t out of the question, as long as Zeigler is healthy and the offense is clicking. With NoCo transfer Dalton Knecht in the fold, the offense may be better than above-average, while the defense of course will be elite. Look out for the Vols, especially in March. This team is built for the big games.
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Head coach: Rick Barnes (37th season, 9th at Tennessee)
2022-23 record: 25-11 (11-7)
2023 postseason finish: Lost to FAU, 62-55, in Sweet Sixteen
Notable departures: Olivier Nkamhoua (Transferred to Michigan), Julian Phillips (Chicago Bulls), Tyreke Key (Graduated)
Notable non-conference games: at Wisconsin (Nov. 10), vs. Syracuse (Nov. 20, in Maui), Maui Invitational (Nov. 21-22), at North Carolina (Nov. 29), vs. Illinois (Dec. 9), vs. NC State (Dec. 16)
PG: Zakai Zeigler* (5-9, 171, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 10.7 PPG, 5.4 APG, 2.7 RPG, 2.0 SPG
SG: Santiago Vescovi (6-3, 196, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 12.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.1 APG, 37.0 3P%
G/F: Dalton Knecht (6-6, 213, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 20.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.8 APG (Northern Colorado)
PF: Josiah-Jordan James (6-7, 220, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 10.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.2 SPG
C: Tobe Awaka (6-8, 250, So.)
2022-23 stats: 3.2 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 0.3 APG
6: Jonas Aidoo (6-11, 240, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 5.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 0.9 APG, 1.3 BPG
7: Jahmai Mashack (6-4, 201, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 4.7 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.4 SPG
8: Jordan Gainey (6-3, 186, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 15.2 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.3 APG (USC-Upstate)
9: JP Estrella (6-11, 241, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 76 rated recruit
10: Cameron Carr (6-5, 175, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 54 rated recruit
11: Freddie Dillione V (6-5, 195, Rs.-Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 46 rated recruit (Class of 2022)
12: DJ Jefferson (6-5, 209, Rs.-Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 85 rated recruit (Class of 2022)
13: Cade Phillips (6-9, 212, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 157 rated recruit
Tennessee Volunteers MVP: Santiago Vescovi
The Uruguayan Vescovi is entering his 5th year in the program with 110 starts to his name. The veteran leader is a knockdown shooter (career 38.1% from deep) and consistently steps up when the Vols need some offense. The 6-3 guard’s perimeter defense isn’t too shabby, either, ranking 2nd in the SEC in defensive rating last year. Teaming up with Zeigler to make one of the best backcourts in the SEC, Vescovi is integral to the Vols’ offense. Vescovi ranked in the top 20 not just in assist percentage, but also turnover percentage and
Vescovi’s veteran leadership will help the additions of Dalton Knecht and Jordan Gainey adjust to the Rick Barnes system, and for as good as his contributions are on the court, his locker room presence is almost as valuable. As Zeigler works his way back from the ACL injury, Vescovi will provide a steady hand on offense for the Volunteers. One piece of analytics: Vescovi’s defensive win share mark of 3.0 wasn’t just 1st in the SEC, it was 3rd in the entire country, out of thousands of players. He can get it done on every part of the court.
Tennessee Volunteers make-or-break player: Zakai Zeigler
Zeigler would be the team MVP if he wasn’t coming off a season-ending injury, and he still might be the best player on the roster this year after all. He’s only been in Knoxville for two years, but it feels like he’s been on Rocky Top for half a decade already. When Zeigler is on the court, the offense flows. When he’s not, the Vols have struggled to score points consistently. Despite a relatively small height of 5-9, it doesn’t seem to affect his game and actually works to his advantage. Zeigler’s passing vision is the best in the SEC, and he led the conference in assists per game last year.
His health, however, is worth monitoring, as he tore his ACL on Feb. 28 against Arkansas. Will Zeigler return with 100% of his shiftiness and agility? Even 80% of his talent is better than most starting point guards, but having Zeigler at full strength would be a major plus for the Vols. If Zeigler is forced to miss parts of the season while recovering, either Vescovi or USC-Upstate transfer Jordan Gainey would be forced to the point spot. The Vols’ hopes this season rely on Zeigler’s health and recovery from his injury.
Key analytic: Assists per game
This goes hand-in-hand with Zeigler’s health, but the Volunteers placed 10th in the nation with 16.7 APG despite ranking 196th in PPG with 70.8. In games in which the Vols recorded 17 or more assists, which happened 14 times, all 14 games were with Zeigler in the starting lineup. The Tennessee offense was able to manufacture easy baskets when Zeigler was healthy, but only averaged 14.7 APG once Zeigler was lost for the season, closer to 60th-70th in the country rather than the top 10 mark with Zeigler.
This year, Zeigler, as mentioned above, will return, but questions remain about just how healthy the knee will be to start the season. By the time SEC games start, Zeigler’s knee will likely be much closer to full strength, but the offense could take a few games to get back to where they were last year, especially as the transfers learn and get adjusted to Barnes’s scheme in real games. Jordan Gainey and Vescovi are capable of dishing out some dimes, but Zeigler is unquestionably vital to this team.
Tennessee Volunteers 2023-24 projections
Projected conference finish: 1st in the SEC
Projected postseason ceiling: NCAA Tournament Champions