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Fall Hoops Check In: Tennessee

Basketball season’s not too far away. To get ready for the upcoming season, we’re reaching out to every SEC school. Next up, and concluding our fall hoops check in, the Tennessee Volunteers

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

In a way, Tennessee and LSU have been mirror opposites of each other on the hardwood.

At least, you could argue that the two schools’ women hoops programs were. LSU and Tennessee spent the better half of the 2000s battling each other for supremacy in the SEC. Tennessee normally got the best of LSU, especially in Tampa at the 2008 Final Four.

Now, a little more than a decade later, there are some parallels between the two men’s programs, too.

LSU and Tennessee finished No. 1 and No. 2 in the SEC last season. Both made the Sweet 16. Both are losing key pieces from said Sweet 16 squads. But the Vols are losing essentially the entire core of that team while LSU has a similar makeup to last year’s team.

To better familiarize us with the new-look Volunteers is Rocky Top Talk editor Terry Lambert. You can find him on Twitter at @TLambertTN.

1. Elephant in the room: Tennessee lost a lot from its 31-6, Sweet 16 squad. Gone are Jordan Bone, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. How does Tennessee replace the core of last year’s stellar squad?

The simple answer is that you don’t. There’s just not going to be a way to replace what Grant and Admiral brought to this program, both on and off the floor. Rick Barnes has established a culture of success at Tennessee, however. Pieces are still in place from that core group with Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner returning. Tennessee will likely be more guard oriented this year with those two, along with five-star freshman Josiah James. That’s a pretty stout backcourt — the problem will come in the frontcourt. You mentioned losing Grant, but Tennessee also lost a defensive anchor in 6-11 center Kyle Alexander, too. Barnes was able to land 7-1 center Uros Plavsic, but is currently waiting on a waiver to see if he can play. John Fulkerson and Zach Kent are the only veterans returning to the post, so Tennessee will be very young and inexperienced there. How that group comes along will determine Tennessee’s season.

2. Is it fair to expect the Vols to take a step back this season?

Absolutely, the question is just how big of a step back. Bowden and Turner will be very good in the backcourt, but as I mentioned above, Tennessee will be significantly weaker down low. Barnes is going to have to lean on new faces for depth, too — guys like Yves Pons, Jalen Johnson and Zach Kent are going to have to step up. Tennessee went 31-6 last year, lost four starters and face a tougher non-conference slate. It’s very fair to think that the Vols will be somewhere on the NCAA Tournament bubble come February.

3. Tennessee’s nonconference schedule is stacked. The Vols play Washington in Toronto; they’re participating in the Emerald Coast Classic in Florida where they open with Florida State and could play either Purdue in a rematch of last season’s round of 32 thriller or VCU; home games against Memphis and Wisconsin, and they play Cincinnati on the road and at Kansas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. How do the Volunteers navigate through all that?

Baptism by fire, right? This has kind of been Barnes’ thing since he got to Tennessee. The Vols have played in so many huge non-conference games through the years and I really think it benefits them later in the year. This season may be a little rough though. I think Tennessee can be competitive in the SEC, but I do think it’s going to take this group a little bit to figure things out and really build some chemistry. The record might not be as pretty as you’d like it to be in January, but I’m betting Tennessee is better for it down the road.

4. Tennessee and LSU open SEC play against each other in Knoxville January 4. It’ll be the first time the two have played since that intense game in Baton Rouge last year, how badly do Vol fans want to get payback for last year’s controversial ending?

I won’t lie — that’s a big one for us. The way all of that played out and how big that result ended up being stung. Then you toss in the Anthony Jordan stuff during the following week and #VolTwitter was hot. Tennessee fans absolutely fell in love with that group last year, so any thought of anyone doing them wrong had Tennessee fans ready for war. It will have a different feel without Grant and Admiral, but it’s a big one for Tennessee. Everyone is counting down until Penny’s Memphis Tigers come to Knoxville in December, but that LSU matchup is probably next of the most anticipated matchups list.

5. The last five games of the regular season are about as tough as it gets. The Vols have to play Auburn twice, go to Arkansas and Kentucky and get Florida for the home finale. There’s potential to score some huge resume wins for the Volunteers, how many of those last five do you think they win?

Tough question with so many unknowns with this team. Tennessee usually finds a way to beat Kentucky at least once a year, no matter who’s on the team. Auburn absolutely has Tennessee’s number, but maybe that changes now that they’ve lost a couple of key guards. Florida will be very tough for Tennessee to defend with Kerry Blackshear now in the mix.

Tennessee is going to have to rack up the wins in early season conference play so they’re in a good enough spot that they don’t have to come away with wins here. I do think Tennessee can pull some upsets at home — Thompson Boling has proven to be a tough venue for road teams to get a win over the last couple of seasons. But it’s tough to trust them at Auburn or at Kentucky right now. However, senior guards who have seen it all will certainly help.