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Front Page - Friday, March 23, 2018

Mixed emotions as Vols, Lady Vols exit postseason early

Wait till next year. Again. Hope for better.

It’s going to a long offseason for Tennessee basketball.

The Vols were seeded No. 3 in the NCAA Tournament’s South Region and were upset by No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago, 63-62, in the second round in Dallas.

At least men’s coach Rick Barnes enters the 2018-19 season on solid ground with UT fans, boosters and the university administration, albeit the sour ending. Barnes, chosen SEC Coach of the Year by the league’s coaches, is one of four candidates for the Werner Ladder Naismith Trophy, the award for national coach of the year.

Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick’s footing isn’t as solid.

The No. 3-seeded Lady Vols lost to No. 6 seed Oregon State, 66-59, in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Tournament’s Lexington Region in Knoxville.

It was the first time in 58 NCAA tournament home games that the Lady Vols had lost. They were 45-0 in first- and second-round NCAA home games.

Warlick is lucky former UT athletic director John Currie isn’t still around. He might have fired Warlick – she has one year left on her contract – if he hadn’t been replaced by Phillip Fulmer on Dec. 1 after his failed search for a football coach.

Don’t look for Fulmer to pull the plug on Warlick right now. He’s worried about fixing the football program. Plus, Warlick’s background at Tennessee works in her favor with Fulmer. She’s a Knoxville native, a former star point guard for the Lady Vols and longtime assistant under legendary coach Pat Summitt.

Still, Fulmer has got to see the Lady Vols aren’t what they used to be. Neither is women’s college basketball. It is much more competitive than when Summitt coached Tennessee to 18 Final Fours and eight national championships, the last two in 2007 and 2008.

The Lady Vols haven’t been back to the Final Four since. Their last trip to the NCAA’s Elite Eight was in 2015-16 when they advanced as a No. 7 seed. Last year, the Lady Vols lost in the NCAA’s second round as a No. 5 seed to No. 4 Louisville.

But that game was in Louisville. Not Knoxville.

Warlick, who took another bashing by fans on social media after the loss to Oregon State, lost her composure in the post-game press conference.

“This isn’t about winning or losing,” she said. “It’s about young ladies getting better on and off the court, and I don’t think they deserve half the crap thrown at them.”

Actually, it is about winning and losing in big-time college athletics. Warlick should know it by now.

While Barnes returns all but one rotation player on his roster next season, Warlick loses her two best players – 6-2 senior guard/forward Jaime Nared and 6-6 senior center Mercedes Russell. Both were on the eight-player All-SEC first team. Both are headed to the WNBA.

Nared led UT in scoring (16.7) and was third in rebounding (7.4). Russell was second in scoring (15.3) and tops in rebounding (9.2).

The Lady Vols’ other starters were 5-11 junior guard Meme Jackson, 6-2 freshman guard/forward Rennia Davis and 6-0 freshman point guard Evina Westbrook.

Anastasia Hayes, a 5-7 freshman point guard, played starter’s minutes in relief of Westbrook and was the SEC’s Sixth Woman of the Year.

Davis will be the Lady Vols’ top returning player as a sophomore next season after averaging 12 points and 7.6 rebounds. She was on the All-SEC Freshman team.

Westbrook, also on the All-SEC Freshman team, averaged 8.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, and the team-high 4.3 assists.

The three freshmen were part of Warlick’s four-player, 2017 signing class that was rated No. 1 in the nation. The fourth freshman, 6-4 center Kasiyahna Kushkituah, averaged 1.8 points, 1.4 rebounds and 7.6 minutes in 16 games.

Jackson and 6-3 forward Cheridene Green will be the only seniors on next year’s roster, composed primarily of sophomores and a 2018 class that is rated No. 3 nationally.

Jackson averaged 8.2 points, 4.0 rebounds and 27.5 minutes this year and started every game. Green played in every game and averaged 4.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 11.8 minutes. Green’s role should expand next season with the departure of Russell.

Warlick’s incoming freshman class consists of four players: Zarielle “Zay” Green, a 6-foot guard from Duncanville (Texas) High School; Jazmine Massengill, a 6-foot point guard from Chattanooga’s Hamilton Heights Christian Academy; Amira “Mimi” Collins, a 6-foor-3 forward from Paul VI Catholic High in Fairfax, Virginia; and Rae Burrell, a 6-foor-1 wing from Liberty High in Henderson, Nevada.

Warlick’s last two recruiting classes are the best back-to-back classes since the No. 5-rated class assembled by Summitt in 2012, the year she retired after 38 years (Warlick handled most of the coaching duties in 2011-12 while Summitt dealt with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease).

With the new talent on campus, Warlick better coach ’em up next season to save her job.

Barnes, on the other hand, has some equity entering his fourth season after putting the Vols in position for an NCAA run.

Tennessee was picked to finish 13th in the 14-team SEC by media. The Vols won a share of the SEC regular-season title (13-5) and lost to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament Championship. They finished with 26 victories, tied for third-most in school history with the 1999-2000 team, which lost to North Carolina in the Sweet 16.

Unlike the Lady Vols in the NCAAs, the Vols got a bad break when 6-11 junior low post Kyle Alexander hurt his hip in a fall during their 73-47 win over No. 14 seed Wright State in the first round of the tournament. He missed the Loyola game, and his absence exposed Tennessee’s lack of depth in the front court.

Although not a big scorer (5.6 points per game), Alexander is the team’s third-leading rebounder (5.6), top rim protector with 57 blocks, and averaged 20.3 minutes per game with 34 starts.

With Alexander out, Barnes started 6-9 redshirt freshman John Fulkerson at low post against Loyola. He was a non-factor with two rebounds and no points in 7 minutes. He didn’t take a shot. This season, Fulkerson averaged 1.7 points, 1.6 rebounds, and 9.3 minutes.

Fulkerson, a Kingsport native who played at The Christ School in North Carolina, hasn’t been the same since he suffered a dislocated left elbow and cracked wrist Dec. 15, 2016, in a win over Lipscomb. He was averaging 4.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 16 minutes per game when he was injured.

Tennessee had no help in the post for its top two players, 6-7 sophomore forward/low post Grant Williams and 6-5 junior wing/forward Admiral Schofield.

When Schofield picked up two early fouls against Loyola, the Vols were in frontcourt trouble. Derrick Walker and Yves Pons weren’t ready for the Big Dance.

Walker, a 6-8 freshman from Kansas City, was averaging 1.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 8.8 minutes. He had two points and two rebounds in 18 minutes against Loyola.

Pons, a 6-5 freshman from Fuveau, France, averaged less than a point and a rebound this season, averaging 5.2 minutes in 24 games. He had two rebounds and didn’t score in 6 minutes against Loyola.

Still, the Vols rallied from a 10-point deficit late in the game. Williams’ three-point play gave UT a one-point lead with 20.1 seconds left, but Loyola’s Clayton Custer hit the winning shot with 3.6 seconds left, thanks to a lucky bounce. UT’s Jordan Bone missed a long shot at the buzzer.

Where do the Vols go from here? Back to work. Like they did last offseason.

Williams returns as the SEC Player of the Year after leading the Vols in scoring (15.2) and minutes (28.6) and grabbing 6.1 rebounds per game, second-best on the team. After taking a hard fall in the Jan. 31 win against LSU, Williams played through hip and back problems the rest of the season while also being double-teamed. He had a below-average game against Loyola with 12 points and three rebounds in 34 minutes.

Schofield, chosen to the All-SEC second team, was Tennessee’s best player during the season’s stretch run. He was the team’s second-leading scorer (13.9) and top rebounder (6.4) while playing a combination role as a wing and power forward. He tied with guards Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden for the team-high 3-point shooting percentage (all at 39.5 percent).

Tennessee returns its entire backcourt rotation except for James Daniel III, a senior graduate transfer from Howard University. Daniel averaged 5.6 points, 1.4 rebounds and 19.7 minutes in his only season with the Vols, playing mostly shooting guard.

Bone returns as the starting point guard along with Turner, the backup point guard and SEC’s Co-Sixth Man of the Year.

Bone, a sophomore from The Ensworth School in Nashville, started 33 of 35 games and averaged 7.3 points, 2.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 23.1 minutes per game.

Turner, a third-year sophomore from Florence, Alabama, and IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, averaged 10.9 points, 3.2 rebounds and 25.3 minutes, playing all 35 games with no starts.

Bowden, who played at Knoxville’s Carter High, returns as the starting shooting guard and top perimeter defender. He averaged 9.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 27.9 minutes while starting every game.

Although Daniel was the only senior on the roster, he probably won’t be the only Vol not returning. Look for at a departure or two. Possible candidates are 6-7 redshirt freshman guard/wing Jalen Johnson (1.2 ppg, 0.8 rebounds, 5.8 minutes, 13 games) and 6-10 freshman center Zach Kent (2.0 points, 1.5 rebounds in two games).

Tennessee, which has no commitments for 2018, needs to bolster its lineup with another post player and a scoring guard, both of whom can contribute quickly.

One player Barnes is after is five-star guard Anfernee Simons of IMG Academy. The 6-foot-3, 165-pound high school senior is ranked the ninth-best player in the Class of 2018 by 247Sports. Simons, who visited Tennessee in January, de-committed from Louisville in September when former coach Rick Pitino was fired.

Simons would be the highest-rated recruit on Tennessee’s roster, which consists entirely of three-star recruits except for Pons, a four-star prospect.

While Barnes and Warlick are back to work, it’s hard to overlook a blown opportunity.

If the Lady Vols had beaten Oregon State, they would have faced a tough task in their Sweet 16 game against No. 2 seed Baylor.

But not the Vols. If they had beaten Loyola, they would have played No. 7 seed Nevada, which upset No. 2 Cincinnati for a Sweet 16 berth.

And if the Vols had beaten Loyola and Nevada, they would have played No. 9 seed Kansas State or No. 5 seed Kentucky for the program’s first Final Four appearance.

Those would have been winnable games for the Vols, especially with Alexander in the lineup. Yep, makes for a long offseason.

Dave Link is a freelance contributor living in Knoxville