Photo by Danny Parker

Did 2016-17 lay foundation for Vol hoops?

Did the 2016-17 season show enough signs that the foundation is in place for the Tennessee men to dance next season?

Rick Barnes proclaimed after inking the 2016 class that he had signed the "foundation class" that would take Tennessee basketball to the next level.

After seeing the ups and downs of one year on the hardwood of Thompson-Boling Arena, the debate rages on if indeed that class is strong enough to take the Volunteers back to the success enjoyed just a short time ago.

The optimistic side points to a team that exceeded expectations, finishing ninth in the Southeastern Conference after being picked 13th. The roster gained valuable experience and exposure spending a good portion of February squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

The Big Orange navigated a top 25 schedule playing 12 games versus top 50 RPI teams with all but two being games in which Barnes' squad showed they clearly "belonged." Two excellent examples of that were when the Vols went to future No. 1 seed North Carolina and led most of the second half before falling 73-71 and taking the eventual Pac-12 regular season co-champion Oregon to overtime in the Maui Invitational.

The pessimistic side points to a coach that once again couldn't get his team to finish strong. This season ended with six losses in the last eight games after suffering through losing five of the last seven contests in Barnes' first year as Vols head coach.

Barnes also had a hard time finishing years strong in Austin as he saw his Texas teams do no better than 5-5 in any of his last five seasons as the Longhorns head coach.

"February is a tough month," Barnes said after the 2017 finale. "It is a grind and we weren't tough enough. People that finish strong are mentally tough."

The task of developing that toughness is going to be key as Barnes and the Big Orange approach the 2017-18 season.

"One thing I know is we have guys that aren't afraid to work," Barnes said.

Immediately after the season ended in Nashville, Barnes' excitement was evident in getting that work started: "I am ready to get started today working toward next season."

If Tennessee basketball is going to get back to being a year-in, year-out NCAA Tournament team, the 2016 class must carry the load. All-SEC freshman Grant Williams is without a doubt the bell cow of the class and Barnes believes with another year of transforming his body he will elevate his game.

Jordan Bowden had a solid freshman year that was slowed late in the season with a bout of pneumonia. Bowden scored in double figures 10 times, averaging just under eight points per game. Barnes praised the Knoxville native throughout the year for his development as a defender.

Lamonte Turner was another freshman that had his moments of success. Turner scored in double figures 11 times, averaging 8.2 points a contest. Like many of the newcomers he had trouble with consistency but finished on a high note, scoring 13 points in the loss to Georgia in the SEC tournament. Perhaps the most encouraging thing from the league tourney was the defensive job he did on Georgia's J.J. Frazier. The All-SEC point guard had scorched the nets earlier in the year but the improvement on the defensive end was apparent from Turner in the finale.

John Fulkerson had his season cut short due to injury but quickly became a fan favorite in his limited action. He figures heavily into future plans.

Kwe Parker is without a doubt an elite athlete. Many in Knoxville have compared his skills to Wes Washpun, a point guard that left Tennessee after his freshmen year in 2011-12 and went on to become a standout player at Northern Iowa. Tennessee fans hope Parker can have the same kind of success — but in orange.

Jalen Johnson is a player that Vols fans will be excited to see next season. With Robert Hubbs III manning the small forward position this season, Barnes elected to use a redshirt year on the talented prospect out of Durham, North Carolina. Johnson has elite athletic skills and by all accounts will add an outside threat that Hubbs didn't.

The trio of rising juniors — Kyle Alexander, Shembari Phillips and Admiral Schofield — will be expected to take its game to another level. They all three showed improvements from Year 1 under Barnes but one or more must become leaders in the near future. Schofield by most accounts is the most likely to do so. "We expect every player to get better," said Barnes, who has a track record of doing just that.

No better example is what Barnes did with Kevin Punter in his first season as Tennessee's coach. Punter improved his scoring average to 22.2 points a game, which was over double his junior average.

While Alexander didn't wow with his stats, his development under Barnes has been apparent with the big man that didn't play organized basketball until his junior of high school. When looking closely at the production of Alexander's sophomore campaign, one will see that his rebounds and blocks per minute place him at or near the top of the SEC in both categories. With added minutes in the future, watch out for Alexander to turn more heads as a rebounder and a rim protector.

"The bottom line is it's about being in the (NCAA) tourney," said Barnes when asked about measuring success or failure.

If the returning pieces have laid a foundation for that to be achieved next season, Jordan Bone has to be a big part of that. Sure there are some incoming pieces that will help but none at the point-guard position. Zach Kent and Derrick Walker are incoming recruits that are sure to add much needed length. Tennessee commit and Scout four-star prospect Yves Pons should be make an immediate impact at small forward. But make no mistake about it, no one on the future roster is as important as Nashville native Bone.

It is no secret that Bone had an up-and-down rookie year for the Big Orange. He missed nine key games early on with an ankle injury and never found the consistency many had hoped for after he scored 21 in the opener. Bone scored in double figures five times and averaged just over seven points a game.

Tennessee has longed for an elite point guard and at times Bone teased those skills. He is an elite athlete with a lighting-quick first step and excellent leaping ability. He had a more favorable assist-to-turnover ratio (2.06) than All-SEC point guard De'Andre Fox (2.0). However he couldn't stay in the good graces of his head coach long enough to play as many minutes. Bone played just 19.6 minutes a game and Barnes pointed to his deficiencies on the defensive end as the primary reason behind the lower than expected minutes.

Barnes relayed a conversation he had with Bone just before the SEC tourney about conditioning hampering his growth. Bone told Barnes, "I have never had to get out of my comfort zone and I know I can do it. Please help me do it."

Bone proceeded to have one of his best games of the year making 4 of 6 beyond the arc and scoring 16 points in his hometown.

It was great way to end the year for Bone. With both he and Turner having solid finishes, Vols fans have their fingers crossed that the much-maligned position can be a corner piece for Tennessee.

Those court generals provide a foundation that is strong and tough enough to succeed next season for a coach that defines success in one way — the NCAA Tournament.

Photo by Danny Parker

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