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Tennessee Basketball: Why can’t the Vols get a basketball version of Nico Iamaleava?

Tennessee basketball isn’t going to be in the Final Four this year no matter the gender. The women and men both fell short of the Elite Eight after Sweet 16 runs. Don’t blame Rick Barnes nor Kellie Harper. They’re just coaches. 

Coaches are just along for the ride in this modern era of college athletics. NIL is guiding winners and determining true championship contenders. Just take a look at Tennessee’s football program. Sure, coach Josh Heupel has reinvigorated the Vols after just two years on the job with an explosive offense, a feverish pace and a corporate culture that would make some churches envious. All of that is nice, but NIL is what really matters.

Who do most Tennessee fans want to talk about when football becomes the topic of conversation? Joe Milton III and Nico Iamaleava. Why? Well, it’s not just because they play quarterback, which is a factor. It’s because Tennessee’s NIL collectives reportedly paid a king’s ransom to secure Iamaleava’s services. 

That begs the question: Why isn’t NIL cash doing the heavy lifting in other sports? I’m certain that Tennessee’s student-athletes in the Vols’ most prominent sports aren’t just scrapping by as they once were. However, I don’t think anybody, except for perhaps some football players, has started thinking about his 401K just yet.

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The bizarre aspect is that a basketball player to help Barnes or Harper would be more affordable, because you’d just need one and wouldn’t need them for nearly as long, maybe just a year or two. Iamaleava can live up to every penny he’s been promised, but he has to have teammates to make him great. That’s not quite as true in basketball in which one player can make a monstrous different.

Miami has proven as much. The Hurricanes top players have been reportedly swayed to Coral Gables by NIL money. Nigel Pack and Norchad Omier transferred from Kansas State and Arkansas State, respectively. The moves came, in part, because of money promised by prominent booster John Ruiz, who also helped convince Isaiah Wong to stay with Miami thanks to some financial supplements.

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Where was Tennessee’s vaunted group of collectives when Barnes and Harper needed them most? Were Barnes and Harper even asking for help? No matter. Let’s move on. Football appears to be solved from an NIL perspective. Basketball should be next.

There’s no need to stop spending on football. It’s just time to realize that an entire athletic department, including a football team, can benefit from robust collection of teams all under one roof.

I’m reminded of the time that former Tennessee defensive back Terry Fair told me that he didn’t know who the Volunteers were until he saw the Lady Vols in a Final Four. That kind of advertising is priceless and worked on Fair, who went on to be an two-time All-SEC selection and an eight-year NFL veteran. Some highly recruited prospect will be watching the Final Fours this season. The Vols won’t be represented. NIL could have gotten them there.

Perhaps some of this is Barnes’ fault. Perhaps he wasn’t willing to accept such a vast change at this stage of his career. Per sources, Harper hasn’t had the option of divvying out a mass amount of cash via boosters and probably won’t. Either businesses don’t see value in using their marketing funds with the Lady Vols or the program is just seen as one that should always flourish as it did in the 1990’s. That’s absurd.

The Vols collective groups didn’t even have to go searching for a freshman with his hand out or a transfer looking for a contract. Tennessee’s collectives should have been smart enough to keep former UT guard Kennedy Chandler in Knoxville. Instead, Chandler was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round and was signed to a contract that was guaranteed to pay him $4.9 million over four years. If Iamaleava can get $9 million, then why can’t Chandler get enough funds to at least offset what he’s currently making in the NBA.

Tennessee’s collectives have another opportunity. North Carolina guard Caleb Love has announced he’ll enter the transfer portal. The Vols have proximity on their side, but they also have Barnes’ style working against them. Would Love want to play in a such a defensive-dominated program? 

Love, who is 6-foot-4, could certainly make a difference. He averaged nearly 17 points per game last season and helped the Tar Heels to the national championship game in 2021-22. Moreover, Love was at his best in tournament time with 30 points against UCLA in the Sweet 16 and 28 in the Final Four against Duke. Think the Vols could have used that production during one of their brutally long scoring droughts?

Tennessee basketball may not get Love. The Vols and their collectives may not have nearly as much success with basketball as they’ve had with football. With two programs that have fan bases questioning their direction, that would be an indictment of the Vols’ current NIL arrangements. Or another reason to question the direction that Barnes and Harper going in.

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