No. 6 Tennessee starts its season Tuesday at home against Division II's Lenoir-Rhyne full of expectations after coming out of nowhere last season to reach the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
The Volunteers, 26-9 overall last season, earned a share of the SEC title after being picked 13th in the preseason.
Of the preseason hype this year, coach Rick Barnes, in his fourth season with the Volunteers, said recently during a press conference, "It doesn't mean anything unless you make it work for you."
He also has tried to keep his team humble by saying, "If what we did last season looks big to us, we've made a mistake."
Most of Barnes' key players return, led by last season's SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, a power forward who averaged 15.2 points per game. Barnes matched with 6-foot-11 post player Kyle Alexander gives the Volunteers one of the most formidable frontcourts nationally. Alexander blocked 57 shots last year.
Admiral Schofield, an athletic wing who averaged 13.9 points and 6.4 rebounds last year, complements Williams and Alexander inside, and outside with his perimeter ability.
Getting them the ball and setting the tone will be junior point guard Jordan Bone, who had 124 assists to go with only 44 turnovers last season.
"We're gonna have guys that we're going to play through, and everybody knows that," Barnes says. "But we would like to get to a point where we aren't relying on one or two guys."
Lamonte Turner, the SEC's Sixth Man of the Year last season, returns after leading the Volunteers in 3-pointers made (70) and attempted (177). The perimeter also has defensive ace Jordan Bowen, who led Tennessee with 39 steals while shooting 39.5 percent from beyond the arc.
Barnes is an alum of Lenoir-Rhyne, which is located at Hickory, N.C. The Bears play in the South Atlantic Conference, and they return their top four scorers last year, including a veteran backcourt with seniors Djibril Diallo and Cory Thomas.
Diallo was named to the SAC's preseason all-conference team. He averaged 15.1 points per game and added 4.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists a game last season. The senior played 31.7 minutes per game and was an honorable mention all-conference selection last year.
Thomas was named to the preseason all-conference second team after scoring 14.3 points per game a season ago. Thomas played in all 27 games and shot 48.7 percent from the field to go with 3.3 rebounds per game and 40 steals. He scored 20 or more points seven times.
Senior center Bertrand Awana (7.7 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game and 48 blocks last season) is also a key contributor.
Lenoir-Rhyne is coached by Everick Sullivan, a four-year letter winner at Louisville under Denny Crum. Sullivan is in his third season with Lenoir-Rhyne after serving as an assistant coach at Georgia State, helping that Cinderella team reach the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament in 2015.
Sullivan told the Hickory (N.C.) Record that he anticipates great things from senior transfer point guard Jon Jean from Furman. Jean is immediately eligible with Lenoir-Rhyne despite transferring because it is a Division II school.
Jean was a reserve for Furman, averaging 5.4 minutes per game while posting 1.3 points and 1.3 assists per game for the Paladins.
"Jon Jean brings us something we struggled with last year," Sullivan said, adding the Furman transfer is a natural communicator. "He's a vocal, leading point guard who brings something to the table that is contagious."
Of the matchup with Tennessee, Sullivan said, "Even if you're able to do a few things well, you can take that and use them as fuel for the games that will matter the most and put us in a position to win a championship in the SAC."
Updated November 6, 2018