By Grace Pohl, UTsports.com
Even with expectations running high for the reigning SEC regular season champs, it is a clean slate for the Tennessee men’s basketball team going into this year.
“Once we got through with the season and they had a little bit of time, which wasn’t much, we went in a room and talked about where we were and what we had done last year,” Rick Barnes said when addressing the media on the team’s media day. “We simply said, ‘Now that’s over with; that’s done with. We’ve got to start over like every team in the country. We don’t get to start back where we finished.'”
Last year, the Volunteers ended their campaign with a regular-season SEC title and a 26-9 record for the third-most wins in program history. But that is far from the head coach’s mind as the team has its first exhibition game at the end of this month.
“We start off the season zero-and-zero like everybody else, and the question will be, ‘Can we improve as much each day as we did a year ago?'” Barnes said. “Really, our whole process that we talk about here is can we get better today?”
After being picked to finish 13th in the SEC last year, the Big Orange is now listed in the top-10 of every major preseason poll as the team returns all five starters from last season’s squad. That includes three Vols that averaged double-digit scoring in Grant Williams (15.2 ppg), Admiral Schofield (13.9 ppg) and Lamonte Turner (10.9 ppg).
“In terms of the outside expectations, if they’re hearing it, I can tell you that they’re hearing a whole different story in practice,” Barnes said. “It’s the same story that we talked about four years ago. It’s about us getting better, and that’s where we’ll keep it.”
Starting his fourth year as head coach at UT, Barnes has scheduled yet another challenging non-conference slate, scheduling programs like Gonzaga and Louisville before conference play begins on January 5 against Georgia.
“We think about going in every day and fighting for it,” junior Grant Williams said. “Not only for ourselves, but also for our teammates. We have each other’s backs, and that is something we pride each other on. Being able to continually do that is huge for us.”
Tennessee is set to host 18 regular-season games and one preseason exhibition at Thompson-Boiling Arena for the 2018-19 campaign. The team will also compete in a Thanksgiving-week trip to New York City for the NIT Season Tip-Off as well as the Jerry Colangelo Classic in Phoenix. Other non-conference games include West Virginia, in-state foe Memphis, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Samford and Tennessee Tech.
“I have no doubt in my mind that this year we will be way more consistent,” senior Admiral Schofield said. “This summer was the hardest summer to get a rim to just shoot a ball on because our whole team was in the gym the whole day. I would have to come in late at night just to get my extra work in because everyone has been putting in time. I think everyone’s urgency and everyone’s focus is being better than we were last year.”
With SEC play still a couple months away, Tennessee’s 10 SEC championships are tied for the second-most among league schools, but the Volunteers have never captured back-to-back conference titles. Another league title this season would also give Barnes his first consecutive league title. He currently holds three Big 12 and an SEC championship under his belt.
UT’s lone exhibition game is October 31 against Tusculum with tipoff at 7 p.m. The first regular season home game is less than a week later on November 6 against Lenoir-Rhyne, slated for 7 p.m. on the SEC Network.
“In basketball, you can always grow,” Schofield said. “This season is very important for my growth but also for the growth of the team.”