Head Coach Rick Barnes has increased the offensive pace and given his Vols the green light.
How can Tennessee ever repay the favor done by the University of Texas when it inexplicably let Rick Barnes go in 2015? In his seven seasons at UT, Barnes has run a classy, successful program, sending players like Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield to the NBA. Last year the Volunteers went 27-8, won the SEC tournament, and ended up ranked No. 5 in the nation.
A native of Hickory, North Carolina, Barnes has fit in perfectly to UT and Knoxville culture on many levels, notably in his active support of the Emerald Youth Foundation. “His leadership is steady,” said AD Danny White in announcing a contract extension last March. “His players exude high character. They take pride in representing our university and the state of Tennessee with class and an unrivaled competitive drive.”
A Faster Pace and Lots of Threes
With four newcomers joining a solid rotation of seven returnees, the Vols ranked No. 11 in the preseason poll. As of early February, they sat at the No. 2 position.
Barnes has emphasized speeding up the offense with quick passes, lots of movement away from the ball, and quick shots. “Pace is important to us,” said Barnes. “We practice with a fast pace.” In a drill called Grenade, players getting a pass must get it out of their hands in a half-second.
Barnes also put a blue line in the Pratt Pavilion floor indicating the NBA three-point line. “He wants us shooting from out there,” said senior guard Josiah-Jordan James. “[In positions] 1 through 5, people have practiced those shots and have the green light.” Said Barnes, “We stat every shot. Zakiah [Zeigler] made 47 straight threes in practice. We tell him, ‘If you’re open, shoot the ball.’ We’re going to shoot the ball. We work too hard not to do that.”
“I was just back from Africa,” said James (see sidebar about his VOLeaders service trip to Rwanda), “and I saw Tyreke [Key] shooting. I said, ‘This dude is not missing. Both him and Zakiah.”
“We’ve got a lot of great shooters,” said Key, a graduate transfer guard with an old-school high-and-tight haircut, an understated moustache, and a mischievous smile. “The nights they’re going to fall are going to be good nights.”
Here are the top returnees:
- Zakai Zeigler, a 5’9” sophomore guard from Long Island, New York, is a quick, savvy floor general who scored 8.8 points per game in 2022. He is the shortest scholarship Vol since 5’7” Ralph Parton—a one-time roommate of Vol Network broadcaster Bert Bertelkamp—in 1979-80.
- Santiago Vescovi, a smooth-shooting All-SEC 6’3” senior guard from Montevideo, Uruguay, hit 40.3 percent of his three-point shots last year scored 13.3 points per game. He speaks Spanish, Portuguese, and English. He’s only the second Vol ever to make more than 100 threes in a season (102). (Chris Lofton had 114, 106, and 118 between 2005 and 2008.) “He’s a high, high IQ player who always seems to be one or two steps ahead of the defense,” says Associate Head Coach Justin Gainey.
- Josiah-Jordan James, a 6’6” senior guard from Charleston, South Carolina, scored 10.3 points per game and led the Vols averaging six rebounds. In 2019 he was the first McDonald’s All-American that Barnes landed at Tennessee. Jaden Springer (now a 76er) came in 2020, Kennedy Chandler (now a Grizzlie) in 2021. Freshman Julian Phillips is the latest.) 10.3 points per game. Family tradition: James’ father, Kurt, played at Michigan State. Four uncles also played college hoops: John James III (Ball State), Kevin James (Alabama State), Anthony Fletcher (Hawaii) and Noel Gilliard (Furman).
- Uroš Plavšić, (U-rosh PLAV-chich) a 7’1” post player from Ivanjica, Serbia, led the Vols by making 57.3 percent of his shots from the floor last year. He graduated from Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, redshirted at Arizona State in 2018-19, then transferred to UT. “He’s our seven-foot Energizer Bunny,” says Justin Gainey. “Those chippies and bunnies, he has to make those.”
- Olivier Nkamhoua (OH-liv-ee-AY KAHM-wah), a 6’9” senior forward from Helsinki, Finland, can, like Plavšić, turn and shoot near the basket. He played for the Finnish National team last summer. His mother, Raisa Still, is Scottish-Finnish. His father, Christian, is from Cameroun.
- Jahmai Mashack, a 6’4” sophomore wing from Fontana, California, had a breakout game against Florida Gulf Coast in November, starting with a one-hand dunk off a pass from Nkamhoua and scoring 10 points in all. “His role will continue to grow,” said Barnes after that game. “He can guard anybody on the court and is highly competitive. He is a guy that can drive the ball, and he can shoot the ball.”
- Jonas Aidoo, a 6’11” sophomore forward/center from Durham, North Carolina, a journalism major and a five-star recruit who has more than 426,000 followers on TikTok. “It’s having an open personality, being bright hearted,” he explains. “I always want to put a smile on people’s faces.” He often does that for Vols fans by blocking shots with his 7’6” wingspan.
- Julian Phillips, a 6’8” five-star recruit, McDonald’s All-American freshman forward from Blythewood, South Carolina, was fouled making enough shots against Florida Gulf Coast to make 10 free throws points. “Julian has bought into the program,” said Barnes. “His ceiling is way up there.”
- Tyreke Key, a 6’2” guard transferred from Indiana State after sitting out last season after shoulder surgery. He is from Celine, Tennessee, in Clay County, about 2½ hours northwest of Knoxville. He spells Ziegler at point guard and is a tenacious defender. “Everybody works extremely hard. I’m a person who works extremely hard. It’s a bunch of good guys.” Said Barnes, “Tyreke Key has been everything we want him to be. He can do a lot of different things.”
- B.J. Edwards, a 6’3” freshman guard from Knox Catholic High. In an early game against Tennessee Tech, B.J. Edwards got in at point guard for only a few minutes but still managed to score a layup, a block, and a three. After the game, his teammates symbolically put a crown on his head. “It’s a tribute to our culture here that it’s not about ourselves but each other,” said Key. Added James, “The crown thing, I don’t know where it came from. I’m really proud of B.J., the work he’s put in. I’m proud of the mindset he has, the IQ that he has. He’s a Knoxville kid, everybody knows him.”
- Tobe Awaka (Toe-BAY uh-WAH-kuh), a 6’8” freshman forward from Hyde Park, New York, is a physical defender. New York’s 2022 Gatorade Player of the Year, he and Ziegler follow in a great tradition of Vols from the Big Apple area—Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld, Howard Wood, Tobias Harris, and Kevin Punter Jr.