The Tennessee men’s basketball program should be an easier sell to recruits after Yves Pons announced Monday that he was returning for his senior season.
I’m not suggesting coach Rick Barnes and his staff convinced UT’s extraordinary shot-blocker that it would be in his best interests to forgo his NBA aspirations. I have a bigger picture in mind.
It’s a before-and-after picture.
Just show prospective recruits the stats posted by Pons and John Fulkerson in their first season under Barnes. Then show them last season’s stats. Add a few highlight videos for good measure.
I don’t see how a recruit could say no.
Players improve markedly under this staff. And that improvement can carry them to the NBA.
Barnes’ and his staff’s success in developing players was apparent before Pons and Fulkerson came along. Pons and Fulkerson just provided confirmation.
You saw how much former players Grant Williams, Josh Bone, Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander improved at Tennessee. Now you have witnessed the same head-turning progress from Fulkerson and Pons, who will form the nucleus of what should be a top-10 Tennessee team in 2020-21.
Two years ago, playing time was hard to come by for Pons and Fulkerson, who were little more than spare parts on a 31-win Tennessee team that ranked No. 1 in the country for a month.
For subscribers: Yves Pons’ decision to return for senior season means big things for Tennessee basketball
They combined to average 5.3 points two years ago. They will enter their senior seasons as two of the SEC’s premier players.
Fulkerson, a 6-foot-9 post player, led UT in rebounding and averaged 13.7 points per game last season. The 6-6 Pons also scored in double figures while tormenting post and perimeter players alike with his quickness and shot-blocking.
They’re two more reasons why prospective recruits can expect to improve their game dramatically under Barnes and his staff. They’re also two good reasons why the Vols are ready to contend for another SEC championship. In fact, they should be the favorite.
Guards Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James also are returning starters. Last season, Vescovi averaged in double figures and James made enough highlight plays to remind you why he was such a sought-after recruit.
If you expect them to improve as sophomores, that’s hardly wishful thinking. Look at UT’s track record for how many players have improved from one season to the next.
There’s more evidence to expect big things from the next season. The Vols’ 2020 recruiting class ranked fourth nationally in the 247Sports Composite and included two five-star players and one four-star. There’s versatility as well as star power in the class.
Five-star Jaden Springer is a 6-4 combo guard who ranked third nationally at his position. Keon Johnson, a 6-6 shooting guard, ranked fourth. Corey Walker, a 6-8 power forward, was the 12th-ranked player at his position.
The Vols further bolstered their roster with the addition of 6-7 graduate transfer E.J. Anosike from Sacred Heart. He averaged 15.7 points and 11.6 rebounds last season. Oregon transfer Victor Bailey, who sat out last season, will strengthen UT’s back court.
Also, don’t forget all those UT players who played sparingly last season. At Tennessee, yesterday’s role players can become tomorrow’s stars.
Pons and Fulkerson are proof of that.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.