The coronavirus pandemic already has impacted one college basketball season. It likely will affect another.

But how much? That’s the big question.

Will SEC teams play a conference-only schedule as they plan to do in football? Will the season be postponed until January?

In a best-case scenario, maybe the virus will wane by then. Or perhaps, we will have a vaccine.

But as we inch closer to a college football season, I can’t resist thinking ahead to basketball, mainly because the 2020-21 season could prove memorable for Tennessee.

The Vols will be improved in football. They likely will finish in the Top 25. However, they’re not ready to compete for a championship in coach Jeremy Pruitt’s third season.

Not only is UT’s basketball team ready to contend for a championship, it should be favored to win the SEC. That’s an accomplishment when you play in the same conference with Kentucky.

Some UT fans will be antsy about high expectations. For all of UT’s basketball success, its history doesn’t inspire championship-level confidence.

Plenty of basketball coaches have succeeded at Tennessee.

Ray Mears was one of the best coaches in SEC history. He won 71.3 percent of his games while coaching the Vols from 1962 through 1977.

Don DeVoe (1978-1989) won 20 or more games in six of his first seven seasons and had only two losing records in 11 seasons.

Jerry Green, though not a fan favorite, won 20 or more games in each of his four seasons (1997-2001).

Bruce Pearl (2005-2011) led the Vols to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments and came tantalizingly close to reaching the Final Four in 2010.

Current coach Rick Barnes won 26 games in 2017-18 and 31 in 2018-19 when Tennessee was ranked No. 1 nationally for a month of the regular season. His next UT team could be his best yet.

The 2020-21 Vols will have to deal with more than Kentucky, though. They will have to contend with a pandemic, which abruptly ended the previous season just when conference tournaments were getting under way.

Longtime Tennessee fans might be thinking, “It figures we could have our best team during a pandemic.” After all, UT’s best basketball teams haven’t had the best of luck.

In 2019, UT lost in overtime to Purdue in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Then, in the Elite Eight, Purdue lost in overtime to Virginia, which went on to win the national championship. In 2018, Loyola-Chicago upset the Vols 63-62 in a second-round game of the NCAA Tournament.

The Vols were a victory away from the Final Four when they lost by one point to Michigan State in the Elite Eight of the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

Eight SEC schools have made the Final Four in men’s basketball. Tennessee’ isn’t one of them. You could make a case that it’s the best college basketball program never to reach a Final Four.

The Vols won’t be short on assets this season. They have a proven coaching staff and four starters returning, including All-SEC candidates John Fulkerson and Yves Pons. They also have added one of the nation’s premier recruiting classes and a couple of promising transfers.

To that, you can add a significant home-court advantage. Maybe.

With only a couple of exceptions, all SEC schools feature large, loud crowds in football. Fan support isn’t as widespread in conference basketball.

Only Kentucky surpasses Tennessee in fan interest. However, if the pandemic would force schools to limit basketball attendance to 25 percent capacity as in football, that would deprive UT of a built-in edge.

The Vols will be hard to beat anywhere this basketball season. But they might be unbeatable at Thompson-Boling Arena — if the pandemic doesn’t get in the way.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or john.adams@knoxnews.com. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.

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