The men’s Tennessee basketball team and the University of Chattanooga men’s teams would seem to be at polar opposites if evaluated by their 2016 rosters, but the women’s teams are right where one would expect.
Both women’s teams are expected to have juggernaut seasons and both seem headed in the same direction—earning the right to play in the NCAA tournament at season’s end.
“Our expectations are pretty much as they are every year,” says UT women’s coach Holly Warlick, “We want to play for championships.”
The late Pat Summit, who pioneered women’s collegiate basketball from an afterthought to where it is today, established that trend in Knoxville. She guided the Lady Vols to center stage in women’s intercollegiate play and eight national championships.
Summit’s success and her ability to motivate performance and draw in spectators is why the women’s college basketball Hall of Fame is located in Knoxville and the genius was rightfully one of the first inductees. Actually, UT-Chattanooga’s coach Jim Foster is also one of the inductees. While Summit was in that first class of 1999, Foster’s name was drawn in 2013.
UT’s men’s coach Rick Barnes, who left one UT (University of Texas) for the other UT, is also a Hall of Fame coach. Barnes coached at Texas for 17 years, won three conference championships, went to the NCAA tournament 24 times, the Elite 8 three times, Sweet 16 six times and Final Four once.
UTC’s Matt McCall could be headed in that direction, although he will need more than a few years before his résumé becomes blueblood status. McCall’s first year as a college coach produced 29 wins at UTC with only six losses, a Southern Conference championship and a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The scary thought for Mocs opponents is he is expected to be even better this year.
“This team could go down as one of the best teams in UTC history,” says McCall. “On paper we are stronger than we were last year and I don’t know if there’s another team in the country with six seniors. I am really, really happy with this group.”
But while McCall’s team is veteran laden, any success UT has in the 2016-17 season will be determined by how quickly seven freshmen mature. The Vols may be the youngest team across the collegiate front this season, even younger than Barnes first year as a head coach when he had six freshmen dealing at Clemson.
“I can’t imagine anybody being any younger than we are,” remarks Barnes. “I know we’ve got a good group of (freshmen) guys. We are waiting to see who we can count on in that group.”
That group includes three high-flying, athletic yearlings in 6-3 Jordan Bowden from Knoxville, 6-7 John Fulkerson from Kingsport, and 6-1 Jordan Bone from Nashville. Two of those freshmen come from the same school, Wesleyan Christian Academy in Fayetteville, NC (Kwe Parker and Jalen Johnson). Grant Williams is also from North Carolina (Providence Day School in Charlotte). Jacob Fleschman is the only newcomer not from Tennessee or North Carolina. He is a 6-1 guard from Texas.
The young players join veterans Robert Hubbs III and Admiral Schofield. Schofield is the only returning starter, scoring 7.6 points a game, but Hubbs was UT’s third leading scorer last year at 10.6. Kevin Punter is one of four starters whose eligibility expired and he was the leading scorer in the SEC with a 22.2 average.
“We’ll miss Punter,” Barnes exclaims. “But there won’t be a game we’re going into that we don’t think we have a chance. Right now our thoughts are that we could go as many as 10 guys deep, but we need a great year from Hubbs.”
Conversely, on the UTC side, the Mocs are veteran laden with three all-Southern Conference performers returning, including Casey Jones, the leading scorer from the 2014-15 season who was lost to injury in UTC’s eight game of the year against Dayton.
Ironically, that game also may have been their most impressive victory. The Mocs ended a 26-game Dayton home winning streak. Dayton, a perennial NCAA basketball power, followed that loss with a 14-game winning streak and went on to win 25 games and lose only seven en route to a berth in the NCAA tournament.
And Jones returns to UTC this season along with two other players who have graduated, Justin Tuoyo and Tre’ McLean who just happened to be two of the brightest stars in the Southern Conference last year.
“In today’s landscape among mid-majors a lot of players graduate early and go on to larger schools,” McCall exclaims. “All three could go to the SEC or the ACC and play. For them all to come back speaks volumes of what they are trying to do here and what kind guys they are.”
Jones, who averaged over 14 points a game two seasons ago, shows no ill effects from his injury. McLean was the leading scorer on a balanced team last year with 12.1 points a game and Tuoyo averaged 11.1 points, five rebounds and a little over two blocks a contest.
Starters Greg Pryor and Chuck Ester also return along with Johnathan Burroughs-Cook. Newcomers Trayvond Massenburg, David Jean-Baptiste, Rodney Chatman and Makale Foreman add depth.
Both UT and UTC’s women’s teams are experienced and are expected to make loud noises in their respective conferences.
Diamond DeShields and Mercedes Russell were two of the best players in the SEC last year. DeShields averaged 14.3 points and 5.2 rebounds a game, while the 6-6 Russell averaged 9.9 points and 8.3 rebounds and posted 11 double-doubles last season, the third best mark in UT history.
Jaime Nared and Jordan Reynolds are veterans and returning starters. Expectations for freshman Kamera Harris are high.
“We worked unbelievably hard this summer,” Warlick remarks. “We have a team with a great attitude and work ethic. You get better in the offseason and I think this team did that. Though we had an uncharacteristic season last year, we finished well and that’s what you want to do.”
UT was only 8-8 in conference play and finished 22-14, but made the Elite Eight in NCAA tournament play, losing to Syracuse.
“We were young last year and are in a very tough conference,” Warlick continues “South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi State have all stepped up and gotten it done. We sent nine teams to the NCAA tournament. But I think we’ll have a great season this year.”
UTC’s Jim Foster is also expecting to have a great season. The Lady Mocs return four starters and their five leading scorers. The returnees include all-Southern conference rebound and block leader Jasmine Joyner, Keiana Gilbert, Queen Alford and Chelsey Shumpert.
Joyner averaged 13.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and blocked a UTC record 126 shots last season in guiding UTC to a 24-8 mark and a spot in the NCAA tournament. Gilbert averaged 12.4 points and 5.7 rebounds, Alford 10.3 points and 4.3 rebounds.
“I feel pretty good about this team,” Foster remarks. “We are deep at every position and have added three good offensive players in Shelby Davenport, who sat out last year, Lakelyn Bouldin and Chelsey Shumpert who is coming back from an injury last season.”
UTC finished 29-6 last year before losing to Mississippi State in the NCAA tournament 60-50. They won the Southern Conference for the fourth straight time and the 17th time overall.
Story by Sam Woolwine
Photography courtesy of SoConPhotos.com and Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com