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Tennessee Basketball: How do this year’s Vols compare to the greatest teams in history?

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A double-digit top 10 victory against the Kentucky Wildcats on the road is impossible to understate for Tennessee Basketball given the program’s history. Vol fans everywhere are legitimately wondering if this is the greatest team in the history of the program. Will it be enough for the program to finally make its first Final Four run?

Dalton Knecht is why this team appears different. Never under Rick Barnes has Tennessee Basketball had such a go-to scorer. Comparisons between Knecht and Bernard King have begun, but the Ernie and Bernie show with King and Ernie Grunfeld never got out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Understanding the luck of the NCAA Tournament, let’s compare this team to the only possible candidates for the greatest team in Tennessee Basketball history: the one that went furthest in March and the only two 30-win teams. What does this year’s UT team have that those didn’t? Where are the lacking? It’s time to dive in.

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2007-2008

31-5; SEC Regular Season champions; Sweet 16

Where 2023-24 Vols are better

Point guard play

This was the biggest drawback for that 2007-08 team that was the first in Tennessee Basketball history. The Vols tried Ramar Smith for most of the year, but he was more of a slasher, and Jordan Howell was never more than a backup. UT now has Zakai Zeigler, who would’ve started on that team in a heartbeat.

Free throw shooting

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With so many athletic defensive specialists on this team, Chris Lofton was the only reliable free throw shooter back then. Only three players shot over 70 percent, and as a team they shot 65.9 percent. This year’s team, however, is shooting 75 percent, and that makes a huge difference in March.

Go-to scoring

There’s no way we’re saying this if Lofton wasn’t dealing with testicular cancer in 07-08, but given that fact, the Vols had no consistent go-to scorer like they have now in Knecht. Lofton or JaJuan Smith would hope to shoot them out of a slump, or they’d go inside, but they had nobody who could score from anywhere.

Where 2023-24 Vols are worse

Depth

Bruce Pearl was great at running nine guys, and in 07-08 there were exactly that many players in the rotation, all averaging double-digit minutes while nobody averaged 30 minutes a game. This year’s team is only eight-deep, and it’s gotten worse in SEC play, so this could come back to bite the Vols.

2009-2010

28-9; Elite Eight

Where 2023-24 Vols are better

Shooting

Despite being the only team in school history to make the Elite Eight, the 2009-10 Vols shot 32 percent from three and 67 percent from the free throw line. This year’s team is 34 percent from three and 75 percent from the stripe. That team did have its own Knecht, though, in Scotty Hopson as a go-to scorer.

Gun control…literally

Before SEC play began in 09-10, Tyler Smith was booted from the team for having an illegal weapon. He was one of their most important players and the leader of the group, so it would be interesting to see if they could have made the Final Four had they still had Smith. They truly were loaded everywhere else.

Where 2023-24 Vols are worse

Depth

While the 2007-08 team had slightly more depth than this year’s team, the 09-10 team is the deepest team in Tennessee Basketball history. Maybe that’s why it went the furthest. The Vols beat the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks with four players suspended stemming from the Smith incident, and even after dismissing him, they had 11 players average double-digit minutes.

Length

Smith’s dismissal actually gave the 09-10 team more length, as it increased Brian Williams’ role. He and Wayne Chism were 6’10” and 6’9″ respectively. Then Hopson and J.P. Prince were each 6’7″, and Bobby Maze was 6’2″, which made the difference at point guard since Zeigler is only 5’9″.

2018-2019

31-6; Sweet 16

Where 2023-24 Vols are better

Perimeter defense

Rick Barnes is trying to outdo his best team this year, and one big advantage is he plays a lot more small-ball. At all times, he has four true perimeter players on the court, even if one of them, like Josiah-Jordan James, often plays down low. That year, he had a much more inside team, so they caused one and a half fewer steals and were worse in transition.

Go-to scorer

Just like the 07-08 team, the 2018-19 Vols were loaded but didn’t have anybody they could give the ball to anywhere on the court if they needed a bucket like Knecht. Grant Williams is elite and was then, but he camped out under the basket. Admiral Schofield was a solid scorer but couldn’t do what Knecht did. Everybody else was a shooter.

Where 2023-24 Vols are worse

Three-point shooting

Despite the 18-19 Vols being a bigger team, they were slightly better from three, shooting 36.7 percent from outside. This year’s team, shooting 34 percent, could get better, but Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden and Jordan Bone were a deadly trio from outside. If Santiago Vescovi gets right and James stays hot, they might approach that number.

Interior presence

Nobody’s going to debate this. Tennessee Basketball had Williams and Schofield to create a force inside, and Yves Pons was a threat when he went into the game as well. Kyle Alexander was a defensive specialist underneath the basket as well. Right now, these Vols only have Jonas Aidoo, but that may be all they need.

Final take

By far the deepest team of the three of these was the only one to get past the Sweet 16. In reality, depth is the biggest concern for Tennessee Basketball this year, and the depth should come in the front court. That and Vescovi and James finding their rhythm would eliminate all the ways every team was better than this team could be.

However, if Barnes continues to run eight guys, he’ll see another disappointing exit. Heck, he ran really just seven guys in 2018-19, and it cost a team that was No. 1 from three weeks a chance at any SEC title, regular season or tournament, or a run to the Final Four. This is why he’s got to go deeper.

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