It is often said in sports that there is a difference between being the hunter and the hunted. When your success comes without predication, it can be easier to obtain. However, once a certain level of expectations is placed upon you, the success can be harder to find. The Tennessee Volunteers are fighting that battle this season, and they are thriving as much as the hunted as they did a year ago as the hunter. As the 2017-18 season began the Vols were picked to finish in the bottom half of the league, but they battled their way to become SEC Champions alongside the Auburn Tigers. This season, they began the year as a top 10 team looking to sustain their status among the nation’s elite. So far, so good.
Tennessee Volunteers Aiming to Repeat as SEC Champions
Tennessee is off to an 11-1 start through the non-conference portion of its schedule. The SEC has become a much better basketball conference over the past few seasons. Coach Rick Barnes knows his team needs to be battle-tested before the league schedule begins in the first week of January. They have challenged themselves in the first few months of the season with multiple high-level games against fellow power five schools. The Vols have three wins over ACC schools; beating Louisville, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest. Their one loss came to then second-ranked Kansas by six points in overtime. Barnes’ team then rebounded two weeks later with a 76-73 win over top-ranked Gonzaga. The Vols have only played one true road game thus far, a 102-92 victory at in-state rival Memphis.
Tennessee has a veteran team. Almost everyone from last season’s SEC Championship squad is back for another run. Even with an experienced squad, it is beneficial to get tested early in the season. This allows Coach Barnes to find out what lineups work well together, which players are ready for a bigger role, and which ones he can rely on in crunch time.
Two Star Attack
The Volunteers are led once again by forwards Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. They epitomize what Coach Barnes wants from his team. Both players are tough, skilled and versatile. Williams is the reigning SEC Player of the Year and is having another standout season in Knoxville. The junior is a load to deal with in the paint. He uses his length and positioning to make up for his lack of height. Williams is a crafty low post scorer with good touch and excellent footwork. He is also a good passer when opponents try to double team him. Whether it is kicking the ball out for jump shooters or big-to-big passing for open layups, everything runs through Williams. He is averaging 20.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4 assists per game. The Charlotte, NC native is well on his way to another All-SEC campaign.
Schofield had thoughts of jumping to the NBA after his junior season but decided to come back to Knoxville. His decision is paying off for him and the defending SEC Champions. The powerful wing has increased his points and assists per game, along with his shooting percentages. His 18.2 points a night are second behind Williams on this balanced Tennessee team. They both bring a physical presence to the court that helps make the Volunteers one of the strongest teams in the nation. Schofield surpassed 1,000 career points early this season. He and junior Jordan Bone provide the perimeter scoring to balance out Williams’ interior production.
Strength and Toughness
The first thing that jumps out when watching Barnes’ team is the strength and toughness with which they play. Their physicality is such that some teams will wilt from the challenge regardless of skill level. Unfortunately for teams willing to stand up to that physicality, the Volunteers are highly skilled as well. Hard-nosed and connected on defense, Tennessee makes opponents work for everything. They are ranked 13th in the country in opponent’s field goal percentage, helped by the fact that they are also 11th nationally in blocks. Coach Barnes’ squad has improved on the offensive end of the floor so far this season, but have not lost their defensive edge in the process.
The road to repeat as SEC Champions will be a tough one, but these Volunteers have shown they will not back down. Toughness is the DNA of this program. They are a deep and balanced team with stars to lead them. Tennessee opens their SEC schedule Saturday as they host the Georgia Bulldogs.