While some media members seem to have low expectations for Rick Barnes’ third season in Knoxville (Tennessee was picked to finish 13th in the SEC at SEC Media Days), some fans in Knoxville believe this team can get over the hump and make the program’s first NCAA tournament since the 2013-2014 season.
There are plenty of opportunities for Tennessee to get quality wins to add to its NCAA tournament resume; here are what could be Tennessee’s pivotal games in a crucial season for Rick Barnes.
Battle 4 Atlantis: Nov. 22-24
The Vols nearly took down nationally ranked teams Oregon and Wisconsin at the Maui Invitational last year, but settled for a seventh place finish. This year, they find themselves in a field with good competition like Villanova, SMU, NC State, Arizona and Purdue. Tennessee will open up the campaign against Sweet 16 participant Purdue, who ended last year’s season ranked No. 15 in the AP Poll.
If the Vols win that one, they’ll likely be playing Villanova in the second round. No one expects Tennessee to win the annual showcase, but this is a big opportunity for Rick Barnes to get an important nonconference win that escaped him last year.
December 17 vs. No. 9 North Carolina
Tennessee fans should remember last year’s game in which the Vols had a 15-point lead at one point in Chapel Hill. However, the Vols couldn’t hang on as the Tarheels stormed back to knock off Tennessee, 75-73.
Now Roy Williams’ team comes into Knoxville as the defending national champions. The Tarheels lost a lot of production from that championship team, but return senior guard Joel Berry, who was named the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four. Again, the Vols were not able to get a marquee nonconference win last season, and this game is a huge opportunity to do so.
December 30 at Arkansas
Tennessee opens up the SEC season on the road against an Arkansas team that finished third in the conference last season, eventually going out of the NCAA tournament in the second round. The Razorbacks lost leading scorer Dusty Hannahs and leading rebounder Moses Kingsley, but head coach Mike Anderson is in his seventh season in Fayetteville and will not make it easy for Tennessee to get off on the right foot in conference play.
January 6 vs. No. 5 Kentucky
Since taking over at Tennessee, Rick Barnes is undefeated at home against Kentucky. Winning in Rupp Arena is a whole different issue, but there is no question the Vols don’t fear the Wildcats in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Kentucky lost stars Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox to the NBA draft, but those familiar with college basketball know Kentucky reloads each season. True to form, the Wildcats come into the 2017 season with the No. 2 ranked recruiting class according to 247Sports. A third-straight home win over the Wildcats would certainly help Rick Barnes’ status in Knoxville.
January 9 at Vanderbilt
Tennessee find itself in a tough stretch to start 2018, as it faces Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M within a week. Last season, Tennessee won in Nashville while freshman guard Jordan Bone had a coming out party in his hometown, dropping 23 points and five assists.
Vandy was a tournament team last season, sneaking in as a No. 9 seed before losing to Northwestern in the first round. The Commodores lost some production in Luke Kornet and Nolan Cressler, but should still be in contention for a tournament spot.
January 17 at Missouri
Tennessee will be up against a familiar face in Columbia in mid-January. Former Vols coach Cuonzo Martin will be leading the Tigers this season, and he brought a top five recruiting class along with him. Despite an 8-24 record last season, Mizzou will be ready to compete with the top teams in the SEC.
February 13 at South Carolina
Don’t expect the same South Carolina team that shocked the world with a Final Four run last year. Ten members of last year’s roster don’t return to Frank Martin’s team.
It’s hard compete for a tournament spot with that kind of roster turnover, but Colonial Life Arena will be a hostile environment for the Vols in a crucial conference showdown on the road.
They’ll have a chance at the Gamecocks in Thompson-Boling Arena in February, but road wins always look better on an NCAA resume.
January 27 at Iowa State
The Vols get another shot at a quality nonconference win right when the Big 12/SEC Challenge comes around in late January. The Cyclones have been a tournament team for the last six years, and coach Steve Prohm led the team to a Big 12 Tournament championship last season. If Tennessee can’t get enough done outside of the SEC early in the season, this is the Vols’ last chance.
February 21 vs. No. 8 Florida
Florida returns most of its production from last year’s Elite Eight team, and the Gators are in prime position to compete for an SEC title.
This late-season matchup gives Tennessee a chance to redeem its play from down the stretch a year ago. The Vols lost five of their last seven games Tennessee’s conference play down the stretch that ruined any chance it had at a postseason appearance, winning only two of its last seven regular season conference games. The Gators will likely be ranked when they come to Knoxville, and a win could be huge for Rick Barnes.
Tennessee was picked to finish 13th in the SEC at media days, despite Barnes being in his third year. The Vols will certainly be playing with a chip on their shoulder, and have the talent to win enough games to finally go dancing in March.