The preseason favorite in the Southeastern Conference in 2020-21? Not 2019 Final Four participant Auburn, not perennial power Kentucky and not talent-laden Alabama.
Try No. 12 Tennessee, which if the experts are correct will have needed just last season to rebuild from its Sweet 16 team of 2018-19. The Volunteers take their first shot at validating high expectations Wednesday night when they host Charlotte in Knoxville.
“Our guys are excited,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “There’s no doubt. We just hope that we can get through what we’ve got to get through and have the best team on the court every night we go out. I think that’s what they want to see, too.”
The Volunteers return four starters from a 17-14 team that played some of its best basketball at season’s end. Back-to-back wins at home over Florida and at Kentucky showed they would have been a dangerous out if the SEC tournament hadn’t been canceled due to COVID-19.
Tennessee will be centered around its frontcourt. Seniors John Fulkerson and Yves Pons both averaged in double figures last year. Fulkerson tied Jordan Bowden for the team’s scoring lead at 13.7 ppg and pulled in a team-high 5.9 rebounds while shooting 61.2 percent from the field.
Pons chipped in 10.8 points and 5.4 rebounds while blocking 2.4 shots per game, giving the Vols a rim protector few teams can boast.
Barnes enjoys the quiet leadership both players provide for their teammates.
“Those guys are very authentic in the way they lead, and you can lead in a lot of different ways,” Barnes said. “They lead by the way they walk and the way they talk and the way they go about their business every single day. If we tell those guys we want something done, they get it done.”
While the Volunteers enter with high expectations, the 49ers shoot to improve on a 16-13 mark under third-year coach Ron Sanchez. Charlotte displayed the ability to defend its home court, going 13-2, but won just three times on the road.
Senior guard Jordan Shepherd returns after leading the team in scoring (14 points per game) and assists (4.1 per game). Fellow guard Jahmir Young (12.5 ppg, 37.3 percent 3-point shooting, 1.6 steals) is also back, and Washington State transfer Marvin Cannon could offer more firepower on the wing. Shepherd and Young are preseason All-Conference USA picks.
However, the 49ers are relying mostly on unproven players in the lane, a dicey proposition against an opponent with Tennessee’s experience up front. Even so, Sanchez figures games such as this will help prepare his players for the conference schedule.
“We are excited to have put together a competitive schedule,” Sanchez said. “We are thrilled to play so many quality opponents.”
Charlotte has been tabbed for a sixth-place finish in Conference USA, where Western Kentucky is the preseason favorite. North Texas, Marshall, UAB and Old Dominion were also picked ahead of the 49ers.
This will be the first time Charlotte and Tennessee have played since Dec. 17, 2010, when the 49ers shocked the No. 7 Volunteers 49-48 in Charlotte.
–Field Level Media