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Can Tennessee Really Land the Best Class in the Nation in 2021?

The Vols started their 2021 basketball recruiting class with a bang on Friday, landing Kennedy Chandler.  However, Chandler could just be the first piece of something very special on Rocky Top.

Rick Barnes and his Tennessee Volunteers started their 2021 recruiting class with a bang on Friday, securing the commitment of Kennedy Chandler, the top-rated point guard in America. Chandler is one of the elite players in the nation, and the Vols went head-to-head against the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Kansas to secure his commitment. In the last few seasons under Barnes, the Vols have sought to take the step to do more than compete with the elite programs in the nation, they are looking to become one in their own right. To make that step, it will take developing talent, something Barnes and his staff have excelled at during their tenure in Knoxville. However, it also means recruiting at an elite level, bringing in the same caliber of talent the traditional powers land year in and year out. Barnes put together one of the most highly rated recruiting classes in program history in 2019, headlined by five-star guard Josiah Jordan James. The 2020 class is by far the best rated class to this point in Tennessee basketball history, with five-star guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer as the marquee names. That kind of recruiting is elevating Tennessee on the national stage, however with the commitment of Chandler, the Vols could be on the brink of something unprecedented.

Recruiting is all about momentum, fit, and relationships. Barnes and his staff have proven over the last three seasons that they can recruit with anyone in the nation when they set it as a priority. They have landed back to back classes that were highly ranked nationally, but the 2021 class could take another step. The Vols built good relationships across their staff with Chandler. They capitalized on the momentum of having two of his friends and a former basketball teammate at Briarcrest Christian sign with the football team in Omari Thomas and Jabari Small. Finally, the Vols were able to pitch the kind of fit that Chandler is as a Rick Barnes point guard, a mold he fits with his athleticism, high basketball IQ, and commitment to defense. It was that combination, and the success on the court, that ultimately sold Chandler on the Vols. Now, Chandler helps figure into the equation for other top targets for the Vols.

Tennessee has a massive need for big men in the 2021 signing class. John Fulkerson and Yves Pons will both graduate after the 2020-2021 season, and Barnes has to land some big men to try and fill their shoes. To that end, the Vols, like every other team in America, have been courting and salivating over Paolo Banchero and Jabari Smith, a pair of five-star big men that are among the absolute best players in America. Unlike many other programs, however, Banchero and Smith have shown similar interest in Tennessee. The fit makes sense. Banchero and Smith are both elite talents that will, in all likelihood, be one and done in the college ranks before being high lottery picks in the NBA Draft. They need a place where they can come in, play early, showcase their talents, and make an impact. The Vols fit perfectly with plenty of minutes available to multiple big men in 2021-2022. Momentum is also going Tennessee’s way, as Barnes has a proven track record of putting quality big men in the NBA. He has also done well in stocking NBA frontcourts with Tennessee products, with Grant Williams and Kyle Alexander on NBA rosters and John Fulkerson and Yves Pons expected to do the same after their senior campaigns. The Vols also have momentum after landing Chandler, an elite prospect that will be working to feed Tennessee bigs in the system Barnes has installed at Tennessee. Still, Chandler plays more than an on-court role here.

Banchero is close with Chandler, and the pair have talked openly about potentially playing together in college. Similar conversations have come from Chandler and Smith. Even at most elite programs, there would likely only be significant minutes for two of the three if any amount of an experienced roster returned. However, Tennessee offers the chance for all three to play significant minutes on the floor together on a nightly basis. Not only has Tennessee’s staff built their own relationships with Banchero and Smith that have made them serious players in each recruitment, now they have a peer recruiter that is close with both, that both want to play with, and that both trust to facilitate their success on the court. There has never been this kind of momentum for a basketball recruiting class for multiple players of this caliber. If Tennessee could land Chandler, Banchero, and Smith, they would more than bring in the best class in school history, they would likely be the top recruiting class in all of college basketball. That is a real possibility in the 2021 class for Tennessee. It may not come to pass, but the Vols have a legitimate shot.

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The Vols are looking to become one of the elite programs in college basketball. That comes with success and ultimately championships won on the court. The key to getting to that level in a conference as competitive in the SEC is bringing in high level talent and developing it well. If the Vols manage to pull off what is in front of them on the recruiting trail, then would have brought in the best recruiting class in school history three seasons in a row, raising the bar on that milestone each time. Tennessee is beating the college basketball bluebloods on the recruiting trail, and if they can keep that up, with Rick Barnes’ track record of developing talent, it is likely only a matter of time until they start beating them on the floor. These 2021 recruitments will be interesting to watch, and if the Vols can build on this momentum, they could do something truly unprecedented in Knoxville with this class.