KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is entering unfamiliar territory.
After winning a share of the Southeastern Conference title and emerging as one of the nation’s biggest surprises last year, Tennessee opens this season ranked sixth in the Top 25. That represents the Volunteers’ highest preseason ranking ever.
“I think it’s good when people know you’re good, because that means you have to be able to play every night, and if you’re not, you’re going to get beat,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “You’ll never hear me say, ‘This is what people on the outside think; they expect us to do this or that.’ Because believe me, our expectations are much bigger on the inside.”
Tennessee returns its top six scorers from a team that went 26-9 and tied Auburn for the SEC championship last season. Tennessee later fell to Kentucky in the SEC tournament final and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament before falling 63-62 to eventual Final Four participant Loyola-Chicago .
“Last year was last year,” junior forward Grant Williams said. “We have more that we want. We have more that we’re expecting. We’re going to leave (last year) in the past. We don’t what that to be something that defines us.”
Williams was the SEC coaches’ choice as the league’s player of the year last season. Senior forward Admiral Schofield also returns after earning second-team all-SEC honors a year ago. Forward Kyle Alexander and guards Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden and Lamonte’ Turner each averaged over 20 minutes last season.
This veteran team will have to get accustomed to having a target on its back.
Last year, the SEC media picked Tennessee to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the conference. That same media poll this year has Tennessee finishing second in the league, behind only No. 2 Kentucky.
That’s a different type of outlook for a program that has never reached the Final Four and has never won consecutive SEC regular-season titles. Tennessee welcomes the ranking and the scrutiny that comes with it.
“It helps your guys stay sharper because they know it’s a big game for everybody,” Barnes said. “I don’t care where you are or what school you’re at. If you’ve got a number in front of your name, it’s a big game. If that’s what we want, it’s something that you have to embrace, and it’s something that you should want. That’s what we do this for.”
Here are some things to know about Tennessee this season.
LOTS OF EXPERIENCE
Tennessee returns the players who accounted for 90 percent of the team’s scoring last season. The players on Tennessee’s roster have combined for 4,094 career points in the Division I ranks.
Williams and Schofield should form one of the nation’s top frontcourt duos. They averaged a combined 29.1 points and 12.4 rebounds last season. Williams has 64 career starts. Schofield has 57.
Barnes says he wants Williams to emerge as a more prolific rebounder. The 6-foot-7 junior had 5.9 rebounds per game two seasons ago and 6 rebounds per game last year. Barnes believes Williams is capable of posting a double-digit rebounding average.
The NCAA Tournament underscored Alexander’s value to the team, as the Vols weren’t quite the same when a hip injury forced him to sit out the Loyola-Chicago game. Barnes wants the 6-foot-11 center to become more consistent in his senior season. Alexander acknowledges he had too many games last year in which he was a non-factor.
“I think that Kyle Alexander has really improved since he’s been here,” Barnes said. “But I think he could be so much better. I think when you have two really physical players in Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield - guys that go out there and they’re hunting for it every single day - it’s easy for a guy to say, ‘I want to defer a little bit.’ We don’t want them to defer.”
Tennessee could end up playing each of the top three teams in the preseason Top 25. Tennessee faces No. 2 Kentucky twice and has a Dec. 9 matchup with No. 3 Gonzaga in the Jerry Colangelo Classic at Phoenix, Arizona. No. 1 Kansas is a potential opponent in the NIT Season Tip-Off.