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Analysis: Pons Returns as Key Cog in Elite Vol Machine

The rising Vol senior has elected to return to Knoxville for his last year of eligibility. See what he brings to this season's Volunteer roster.

The Tennessee Volunteers of Rick Barnes have a very clear goal for the 2020-2021 season, and that is to make a run at the National Championship. They return an experienced roster with players that have performed at an elite level in big games. The roster also features younger players that have now had a full year in the Tennessee system, and that have adjusted to SEC play. The Tennessee roster will be further bolstered by players that lost eligibility due to transfer rules being eligible and prepared to play a full season. Beyond all that, the Vols landed the highest rated recruiting class in school history for basketball, meaning Rick Barnes will have multiple extremely talented freshmen in the mix for his Vols. The Vols certainly have a roster that looks ready to do damage in the NCAA Tournament, but they were waiting to hear the status of one, final piece. The reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Yves Pons, the only Volunteer to ever earn that honor, had been testing the NBA waters, considering foregoing his senior season. The Vols awaited his decision, which came today, with Pons announcing he will return to Knoxville for his senior campaign.

The Vols would have still been a good team with a good roster if Pons had decided to go to the NBA, however with Pons, they should be firmly in the National Championship conversation. In the 2019-2020 season Yves Pons was consistently one of Tennessee's best players, and was by far their most improved player in the campaign. While Pons may not have been the best player for Tennessee, that honor probably fell to John Fulkerson, the Frenchman may have been the most important player for the Vols. Though he is only 6’6”, Pons effectively played center on the defensive end for the Vols. Not only did Pons play around the rim defensively, he excelled there. Pons used his immense wingspan and incredible leaping ability to lead the SEC in blocked shots, while contesting and altering many more from even much taller opponents. Pons has rare athletic gifts that allow him to play above the rim despite being 6’6”, and like Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, his physique and strength allow him to out physical many SEC post players. Pons was so important for Tennessee because he could defend the rim when needed, or he could step out and defend any position on the floor. Pons can defend the 1 through the 5, playing with his back to the basket or picking up a point guard at half court, effectively erasing all of them. That versatility makes him the anchor for the Volunteer defense, and a key cog in one of the most active, efficient team defenses in all of college basketball. 

While Pons plays above his height on defense, serving as an interior presence and hiding a deficiency in the Vols' lack of height and big bodies, he also developed into a key offensive contributor. Pons has always been a threat to run the floor, closing out a fast break with a highlight reel dunk thanks to his incredible athleticism. However, in the 2019-2020 season, Pons arrived with a more versatile, polished, and consistent offensive game. Pons showed that he could guard opposing centers on one end, then come down the floor and score on them in the post. The dunks on breaks were still there, but Pons used his quickness and athletic ability to turn the corner on defenders and finish emphatically at the rim, as well as grabbing rebounds to punctuate with emphatic put backs. Pons also showed that he had developed as a pure shooter, showing a very reliable mid-range shot and an effective three-point shot. While his work beyond the arc could be streaky at times, Pons hit enough from deep that teams had to respect and defend it, especially after Pons showed a knack for hitting them in big spots or in bunches. On both ends of the floor, Pons and Fulkerson played together and made one another better, switching seamlessly on defense, grabbing rebounds, and creating offensive opportunities for one another. The duo became the foundation of the offense and defense for the Vols in 2019-2020, and Tennessee played their best basketball of the season when running through the pair of rising seniors. The Tennessee roster in 2020-2021 provides Rick Barnes with an exceptional amount of versatility, and this should allow him to use Pons as a weapon all over the floor at both ends, especially if he shows the same kind of improvement between his junior and senior year that came after his sophomore campaign. 

The Vols have one of the best rosters in the nation going into 2020-2021, with experience, size, athleticism, scoring, defense, talent, and role players. The Vols have tremendous depth and the ability to play any style of basketball they are asked to play and play it well. Yves Pons is one of the few players on the roster that has a spot and important role on the floor whatever lineup Barnes sends out. Having him return gives Tennessee one of the elite defenders in the nation, a rim presence they can build a defense around, valuable senior leadership, post season experience, a solid offensive option, a quality rebounder, and a player that can push Tennessee to the pinnacle of college basketball. With Pons in the lineup, Tennessee is among the best defensive teams in the NCAA. If he and John Fulkerson can maintain their offensive production as well, the addition of more scoring talent around them and off the bench make these Vols a truly elite unit for the 2020-2021 season.

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