Photo by Danny Parker

Vols freshmen better on court than paper

Tennessee's freshmen have pleasantly surprised many with their performance in the early stages of their careers in orange.

When Rick Barnes was hired at Tennessee in late March 2015, the Volunteer faithful believed they had hired one of the elite recruiters in college basketball — and for good reason. Barnes had enjoyed a roster full of five- and four-star prospects at Texas. Many felt the same was about to happen in Knoxville.

In that first fast-and-furious class where Barnes scrambled to clean up the mess after the departure of Donnie Tyndall, Barnes was able to get a highly thought of recruit in Lamonte Turner to reclassify and sign with the Vols, which seemed to point to Barnes still having the magic touch. However, Turner, who graduated high school a year earlier than planned, was able to get certified by the NCAA Clearinghouse about the same time the 2016 class commitments rolled in. Those commitments did not come with anywhere near the same fanfare as Vol fans expected.

In the early signing period last fall, Barnes received five signatures. All ranked outside of the top 100 and three-stars by Scout. The list of schools Tennessee had beaten out for those signatures weren't exactly a whose who of college basketball. Barnes would eventually add a sixth signee in Knoxville native Jordan Bowden, another three-star, in the spring signing period. Barnes and his staff insisted they were pleased with the players they had identified as being fits for their blueprint for success.

Even though Barnes declared to anyone that was willing to listen that he had landed a class that would set a solid foundation, the pessimism around the program was loud and clear on social media and message boards as the season approached. The overwhelming thinking outside of the program was the class wasn't talented enough and did not possess enough length to compete at the Southeastern Conference level.

Six games into the season it is becoming more clear that those inside the program who insisted this class was a solid foundation class and would be able to win at the SEC level were much more accurate than the recruiting analysts. The young group of Vols started to open some eyes on their recent trip to Maui where the Vols just narrowly missed signature wins over preseason top 10 teams in Wisconsin and Oregon. The Volunteers finally broke through with a blowout win over a once-proud Georgia Tech program 81-58 on Saturday.

The first commitment of the 2016 class, Jordan Bone, made his presence known as one of the steals of the cycle on opening night, leading the Vols with 21 points in a loss to a solid Chattanooga team but is currently missing time with a stress fracture in his foot. He should return before conference play begins.

The last commitment of the class, Bowden, has started five of the six contests and is averaging just under seven points a game. He had a career-high 14 points against Appalachian State and has done a solid job of protecting the basketball, committing just six turnovers on the year. Bowden looks to have the potential to be a real 3-point threat.

The two brightest spots have come from the biggest area of need for the Vols and that has been in the low post. All offseason the talk was that John Fulkerson was too light and Grant Williams was too short to succeed at this level. While those concerns may hamper the two from time to time it appears they are going to be able to overcome them. Fulkerson is using a high motor that is energizing his team. He has started the last two games and is averaging 10.7 points in his last three games. During that stretch he is grabbing 9.3 boards a game while also being the teams leading shot blocker. Fulkerson is quickly becoming a fan favorite.

Williams is averaging nine points a game and 4.5 rebounds a game. He has a high basketball I.Q. and finds a way to compensate for his lack of length at 6-feet-5 by beating defenders by creating advantageous angles. No better evidence of that was on Saturday when Williams scored repeatedly over and around one of the nation's best shot blockers in Ben Lammers. The Yellow Jacket center stands 6-10 and has an astounding 33 blocks on the young season. Williams poured in a career-high 14 points despite being matched up against Lammers much of the contest.

Kwe Parker missed the first two games of the season with an ankle injury but is slowly finding his way. He has a solid athletic skillset and plays with great energy. Barnes applauded his effort against the Yellow Jackets and pointed him out specifically for making the "play of the game for diving on the floor." It showed this class is buying into playing the entire 40 minutes which Barnes has been preaching.

Jalen Johnson is the only member of the 2016 class not playing a role for this team as he is redshirting but Barnes has been far from disappointed from the youngster. He is just behind some older guys like Robert Hubbs III and Detrick Mostella and could use a year to polish his skills.

Vol fans are finding out that there is a better way to judge Rick Barnes' recruits than on paper.

Photo by Danny Parker

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