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Despite losses, could Tennessee be better when Vols hit court this fall? 

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Last year, Tennessee men’s basketball had one of its greatest seasons in program history.

The Vols won the SEC regular-season title, reached the Elite Eight for only the second time ever and produced the SEC Player of the Year in Dalton Knecht. They beat a Final Four team in Alabama, an uber talented Kentucky squad, Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers and Big Ten power Illinois.

But in the offseason, the Vols lost four players of varied value, led by Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka. Aidoo transferred to Arkansas to play for John Calipari. Awaka transferred to Arizona.

At the time, coach Rick Barnes said his goal was to make UT’s roster better.

Did he?

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“I think you have to feel that way,” Barnes said in a recent interview. “We’re excited.”

Tennessee appeared to do a masterful job of finding the right pieces to the puzzle.

They found a scorer in Nashville native Chaz Lanier, who went from averaging 4.7 points as a junior at North Florida to 19.7 points.

They found an inside defender in 6-11 Felix Okpara from Ohio State. He blocked 83 shots last year and is a solid rebounder.

They found a 6-8 shooting guard in Darlinstone Dubar, who averaged 17.8 points at Hofstra last year.

And they got another versatile player in 6-10 Igor Milicic, who averaged 13.0 points and 8.4 rebounds at Charlotte. He is UT’s first big man under Barnes who can stretch the floor with 3s.

That foursome averaged 57.6 points and 26.3 rebounds last year.

The four Vols that hit the portal averaged just over 18 points and just under 13 rebounds. Counting the departures of Knecht, Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James, the Vols lost 54.6 points and 27.4 rebounds from last year’s roster.

“I give it to my coaches,” Barnes said of the transfer haul. “They worked really hard as for as intel, trying to make sure we knew what kind of players we wanted to come in.”

Barnes said veteran players like Jahmai Maschak and Zakai Ziegler did a “great job in the recruiting process. We said, `You guys have got to be a part of it. We want to make sure we have the same thing we had a year ago.’”

Barnes said the staff informed the returners of the portal players the Vols wanted.

“All they said was, `This is how we do it and we want to win. You’re going to have some discomfort at times, but you’ve got to be willing to know if you want to be one of very best, you have to get out of your comfort zone.’”

As for getting the right players to fill certain needs that fit the UT culture, Barnes said, “it’s roster management, that’s what it is. What we didn’t want to do was just go get bodies and players. We had a specific plan we wanted to put together to replace what we lost.

“You like to think you got better, but we won’t know until a year from now.”

A year from now, will the Vols hoist the SEC regular-season trophy? Will they make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament? Will they produce an SEC Player of the Year candidate?

Last year’s team will be a hard act to follow.

But this year’s team appears to have more balanced scoring, a big-time inside defender, greater versatility and perhaps additional 3-point threats.

That might not add up to another SEC title and Elite Eight run, but it is the formula for a highly successful season.

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