That's why the guard decided on the last day possible to return for his fifth year.
“The biggest thing was being around a group of guys who I felt like were on the same page as me and wanted to come back and do something that’s never been done at Tennessee,” James said. “We have a roster that can do that.”
The Volunteers went 25-11 last season and lost in the Sweet 16 to Florida Atlantic on the Owls' way to the Final Four.
This program has made only one Elite Eight appearance in program history. Coach Rick Barnes, with his contract extended through 2027-28, goes into his ninth season here having made 27 NCAA tournaments with four schools with only three Elite Eight appearances and one Final Four on his resume.
“We want to win as many games as we can and push to win championships,” junior forward Jonas Aidoo said. "That’s the DNA that we are trying to build into this program.”
Both James and Santiago Vescovi from Uruguay tested their NBA draft stock, then decided to return to Knoxville. Returning allows both to work on their games. For Vescovi, he’s been honing his ability to shoot when moving rather than simply catch-and-shoot along with making better decisions.
They anchor a roster with Dalton Knecht, a transfer from Northern Colorado, another fifth-year player. Guard Zakai Zeigle, returning from a torn left ACL, is among four juniors.
Barnes also has three sophomores led by Tobe Awaka who played with USA Basketball this summer, two redshirt freshmen and three true freshmen. That allows the Vols to practice young players against veterans who went to a Sweet 16 in March.
“It’s neat watching ’em do it,” Barnes said. “I think it’s a huge advantage when you have older guys.”
The Vols top the Southeastern Conference with 144 wins over the past six seasons. They also have a league-best .716 winning percentage and most postseason wins with 15. They've won two SEC titles with the 2018 regular-season championship and the league tournament title in 2022.
Tennessee led Division I by holding opponents to 26.5% shooting beyond the arc last season. The Vols also ranked third both in scoring defense holding opponents to 57.9 points a game and field-goal defense allowing 37.3% shooting per game. The Vols went 22-0 when holding opponents to less than 60 points last season.
The Vols visit Michigan State for an exhibition Oct. 29 as a fundraiser to help Maui rebuild from wildfires that forced the Maui Invitational to move to Honolulu. They open the season Nov. 6 against Tennessee Tech at home, where they are 43-5 the past three seasons.
The schedule has Tennessee visiting Wisconsin on Nov. 10 and at the Maui tournament, where they will play Syracuse and then either Purdue or Gonzaga. They visit North Carolina on Nov. 29. The SEC slate begins Jan. 6 hosting Mississippi, and Tennessee wraps up the regular season hosting Kentucky on March 9.
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