The start of Tennessee’s season was delayed nearly two weeks because of COVID-19 issues within the program. Then the Vols’ first six games were against unranked Colorado, unranked Cincinnati and four sub-150 KenPom teams that don’t matter much to most. So as I continued to rank UT in the top five of the Top 25 And 1 each morning despite the lack of a big signature win on its resume, various fans would regularly question it for exactly that reason.
But is anybody questioning it now?
Tennessee played its first high-profile game of the season Wednesday night on the road against an undefeated Missouri team that had already beaten Illinois and Oregon and was ranked 12th in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. In the simplest of terms, the Vols looked awesome. They led by double-digits not even five minutes in, led by 13 at the half and cruised to a 73-53 victory. Yves Pons finished with 13 points, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals.
“Yves Pons was terrific,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes. “That’s the player we know he can be. If you could have heard the reception he got when he came off the TV interview into the locker room, it would show you the respect his teammates have for him.”
When I picked Tennessee to win the SEC in the preseason despite the Vols going just 9-9 in the SEC last season, I did so by explaining that they clearly had the three biggest ingredients necessary to form an elite college basketball team:
- A great and accomplished coach.
- Players who have already produced at the high-major level.
- Legitimate NBA talent.
All of that has been on display this season. Barnes has the Vols operating like something that might end up being the best defensive team in the country. The leading scorer is Victor Bailey, a fourth-year junior. The leading rebounder is John Fulkerson, a fifth-year senior. Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer are both five-star high school prospects who are now projected one-and-done first-round NBA Draft picks coming off of Tennessee’s bench. I repeat, UT has two projected one-and-done first-round NBA Draft picks coming off of its bench.
Bottom line, the Vols are loaded.
They look like a possible Final Four team.
Tennessee remains No. 4 in Thursday morning’s updated CBS Sports Top 25 And 1 daily college basketball rankings. The Vols’ next scheduled game is Saturday against Alabama.
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