Tennessee basketball: Bowden, Turner stepping into leadership roles as preseason practice progresses

Cory Sanning

Tennessee basketball faced quite a bit of uncertainty this offseason.

With the departures of Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone and Kyle Alexander to the NBA, the Vols now face the task of integrating new talent ahead of their exhibition with Eastern New Mexico on Oct. 30.

Of the group that advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament just seven months ago, eight remain. That crowd includes senior guards Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, both of which are coming off of seasons in which they dealt with nagging injuries. 

Despite that, they both averaged career-highs in scoring and Bowden was among the leading candidates for SEC Sixth Man of the Year after Turner claimed the honors the year before.

For head coach Rick Barnes, however that doesn't mean the team is "starting over."

"I don't know if I'd say that because we have guys back that have shown terrific leadership," Barnes said. "They've helped these guys from the time they've walked on campus in June...all of this is new to them but they've been able to move quicker than you'd expect because of that leadership." 

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Tennessee guards Jordan Bowden (right) and Jalen Johnson (left) look on during the Vols' preseason practice session at Pratt Pavilion on Oct. 3, 2019.Cory Sanning/Sports Illustrated

That leadership starts with Bowden and Turner and trickles on down.

After being at the helm of the program for four years, Barnes has led Tennessee to heights the program has not experienced since the Bruce Pearl era.

And despite boasting six new players, the veteran coach is confident in their ability to mesh quickly and praised their willingness to learn.

"I've seen a group of guys that want to be taught basketball and are open-minded," Barnes said. "They've bought in to what the older guys have told them...it's been a fun group of guys to be around."

That group includes five-star point guard Josiah-Jordan James, transfer forward Uros Plavsic and Knoxville native Drew Pember, who led Bearden High School to the Tennessee Class AAA Championship during his senior season.

Despite the incoming talent, the spotlight has been nestled on Tennessee's top returning contributors in Bowden and Turner.

After losing one of college basketball's most vocal leaders in Schofield, the Vols are looking to that tandem of guards to fill the void. Through a week of practice sessions and summer workouts, Barnes feels they have embraced that reality. 

"Every year, roles change...from a leadership standpoint, those guys have been terrific," Barnes said. "A lot of respect for Jordan Bowden...they do lead by example and they are more vocal than they have been."

Part of that mentoring role includes setting the tone for the younger players and that's an aspect of their personalities that Barnes held high praise for.

The first men's basketball player from Knox County to receive a scholarship to Tennessee since Doug Roth in 1985, Bowden and Pember now stand as the only two Knoxville natives to achieve that feat in the past 30 years.

A graduate student known for knocking down big shots in clutch situations, Turner's ability to tune out the outside noise and focus on the task at hand has been one of his greater strengths.

Even with those tools in their arsenal, the Vols' incoming group of players may be relied on more than traditional underclassmen are used to. 

Of the 14-man roster, half are made up of sophomores or below and Barnes feels that their development will be key for the team to have success this season. 

"The fact is we need the young guys to understand that you can't say you're 'young,'" Barnes said. "We need the older guys to know they've got to get better. We try not to put anyone in a box."

When Tennessee opened up the season a year ago, expectations were soaring around the program as the Vols opened at No. 5 in the AP poll.

While this year's circumstances are different, the expectations and the culture within the program have not changed. 

As for Barnes' level of confidence? If there is one thing that the Hickory, North Carolina native does not lack, it is faith in his group. 

"I am excited, it's been a fun group of guys to coach," Barnes said. "I like the chemistry a lot with this team, I like their energy. I think these guys understand that we've got to get better and it'll be a process where we have to break through."

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