Rick Barnes bets on the health and development of Vols

As Rick Barnes spoke to the media earlier this week, he was doing it with a very different Tennessee basketball program than the one that ended the season in March. Six newcomers had joined the program while seven had transferred or left for the NBA draft.

The media session also welcomed Barnes’ two new assistant coaches, Justin Gainey and Rod Clark, who replaced Desmond Oliver and Kim English. Simply put, they were a very different team in many ways, but the truth is that they may not be complete yet.

At present, Tennessee basketball still has two scholarships to hand out, either by transfer or new recruits. However, Barnes doesn’t feel rushed to fill those spots. Here is what he said when asked about it.

“At the moment, we have no intention of doing anything. Again, this could change because of the transfer portal and day to day now, I think the most important thing now is that you need to be able to manage the roster. I told you, we never stop recruiting. We are already on the road. It would have to be something really special for us to add to what we have right now.

Reading this, it’s clear that beyond its standard approach to recruiting, Barnes has no intention of actively responding to these specific openings. Honestly, despite all the excitement, it’s a big bet on the road.

Of the 12 scholarship players on the Vols roster, only four of them have played a full season and logged significant minutes (averaging more than 10 per game) in the process. They happen to be UT’s four returning rotating players: Josiah-Jordan James, Victor Bailey Jr., Santiago Vescovi and sixth-year senior John Fulkerson.

Obviously, four players are not enough to make a team. Barnes is banking on the other players being well prepared, developed and healthy, depending on who they are, just to have a solid rotation.

One of them is probably a good bet. Five-star point guard Kennedy Chandler is considered the best player in his position, and as a unique guy, Barnes is smart to bank on his preparation. He’ll probably start anyway, which at least allows Barnes to go five deep.

There are two five-stars on the list to be fair, so Brandon Huntley-Hatfield might be another safe bet. However, Huntley-Hatfield reclassified with the 2021 class, so he might be a bit premature arriving on Rocky Top. It’s a riskier bet than Kennedy.

We’ll get to the readiness factor in a minute, but Auburn Tigers graduate transfer guard Justin Powell is another risk. Sure, the 6’6″ sniper proved himself by averaging nearly 12 points per game in 10 games last year as a rookie, but he’s missed most of the season due to a head injury. Barnes has to rely on his health.

More Everything for Tennessee

So far, Tennessee basketball is seven deep with sure bets on four returns and seemingly sure bets on two five-stars and a graduate transfer. At the same time, however, the more you increase your seemingly safe bets, the more likely it becomes that one of them will turn out to be dangerous.

Where can Barnes get more depth, though? Well, he has two other returners on the court before Olivier Nkamhoua, who can play all three or four, and Uros Plavsic, a true seven-footer. Nkamhoua played 24 games last year while Plavsic played 16 and started one, but they lasted just over seven and four minutes respectively. Barnes’ bet here is that one of them grows.

Then you have the other three freshmen. Four-star center Jonas Aidoo, four-star forward Jahmai Mashack and three-star French sniper Quentin Diboundje Eyobo all make up this group. Here we go back to preparation, but Barnes would need one or two of them to be ready for a full rotation.

Given all that, the uncertainty makes it risky for Barnes not to add a few graduate transfers to Tennessee’s basketball program this year just to ensure more proven experience and depth. He takes a bet, even if he increases his chances.

To be able to go as deep as seven, Barnes needs all his safe bets to train. If he wants to go two deep at every position, he most likely needs both five-stars ready immediately, his only perfectly healthy transfer, one of his reserves back for stepping forward in the development and one of its three other signatories to also be ready immediately.

It’s very possible for all of this to happen, and Barnes has options for development and preparation. Still, that’s not a sure thing for Tennessee basketball, and it’s something they’ll have to watch out for as they continue into full offseason mode.

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