Tennessee believes getting younger doesn't mean rebuilding

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee finally is opening a season without adapting to a coaching change, and yet the Volunteers are still starting over in a certain respect.

Just don't try telling them that.

Even with nine players on the roster who didn't play a minute for the team last season, the Vols' goals remain as high as ever.

''Playing in March, that's the No. 1 goal,'' senior guard Robert Hubbs III said. ''Everything else can take care of itself, if we're still playing in March, playing on a big stage and just trying to go as far as we can.''

The list of newcomers includes seven true freshmen as well as redshirt freshman Lamonte Turner and Utah State graduate transfer Lew Evans.

All those new faces create plenty of uncertainty in the second season of Rick Barnes' coaching tenure in Knoxville. That explains why the SEC preseason media poll had Tennessee finishing 13th out of 14 teams in the league, ahead of only Missouri.

Barnes said he isn't surprised Tennessee was picked that low, but he doesn't necessarily agree with the assessment. Barnes believes this team has more talent than last year's squad and is capable of reaching the NCAA Tournament.

''I think we're just more skilled from top to bottom,'' Barnes said. ''We don't have a lot of size, but we do have more size than we had a year ago. It's the attitude of these guys. I do think there's a willingness to learn. They want to get better. They know they've got to get better.''

Tennessee must replace three of its top four scorers from a team that went 15-19 last season , its first sub-.500 record since 2004-05.

The Vols are relying on newcomers who weren't all that highly regarded during the recruiting process. None of Tennessee's true freshmen were rated higher than 149th in their class according to composite rankings of recruiting websites compiled by 247Sports.

''It definitely motivates us,'' freshman guard Jordan Bone said. ''We're just ready, man.''

Tennessee at least has coaching stability, something that had been missing from the program in recent seasons. Barnes was Tennessee's third coach in as many seasons when he arrived last year.

The Vols believe the experience of Barnes and the infusion new talent will provide a winning combination.

''We don't think this is rebuilding,'' sophomore forward Admiral Schofield said. ''We just think it's re-upping, restocking our closet. One of the things we have is depth this year, and we're going to display our depth.''

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Some other things to watch with Tennessee.

HUBBS' PROGRESS: Hubbs is a former five-star recruit who has struggled with consistency throughout his career, but the Vols believe he's ready to make a breakthrough in his senior year. Hubbs says he improved his shooting by taking up Barnes' offseason challenge to make 350 shots from NBA 3-point range each day.

POINT GUARD OPTIONS: Tennessee has the point guard depth it lacked in recent seasons. Bone, freshman Kwe Parker, Turner and sophomore Shembari Phillips all have the ability to play point guard.

CHANGING LINEUPS?: The Vols still haven't come close to settling on a starting five. Don't be surprised if Barnes experiments with several different lineup combinations during the first few weeks of the season.

TOUGH SCHEDULE: Tennessee's nonconference schedule includes each of the last two NCAA Tournament runners-up: Wisconsin and North Carolina. The Vols travel to North Carolina and also will face 2016 NCAA Tournament teams Gonzaga and Chattanooga. Tennessee meets Wisconsin in its opening game in the Maui Invitational and will face either Georgetown or Oregon in the second round.

REPLACING PUNTER: Tennessee has a tough task replacing Kevin Punter Jr., who averaged 22.2 points per game last season to rank second in the SEC before his college career ended in February due to a stress fracture in his right foot. The Vols figure to have a more balanced scoring attack this year.

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