There are veteran teams, really veteran teams, and then there is Tennessee's 2023-24 men's basketball team.
The Volunteers could showcase an athletic starting lineup of junior point guard Zakai Zeigler, fifth-year senior guards Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi, junior guard Jahmai Mashack and junior forward Jonas Aidoo, a quintet who combined for 158 games and 84 starts last season. That lineup would hinge on the availability of Zeigler, who had his sophomore season cut short in February by a torn ACL, but the return of both James and Vescovi instantly catapulted Tennessee to an elite level nationally in the experience department.
James and Vescovi were freshmen when the 2019-20 season was canceled at Nashville's Southeastern Conference tournament due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
"I've been here forever," Vescovi said this week in a news conference. "I really love the program. I love Knoxville, and the people here are great. The support from everyone has been amazing.
"For my future, I thought it was best to come back for one more year and spend another year here with the guys."
The 6-foot-3, 192-pound Vescovi has played in 114 games for the Vols since arriving from Uruguay, including 110 in the starting lineup, and his 282 career 3-pointers rank third in program history behind Chris Lofton and Allan Houston. The 6-6, 207-pound James, who hails from Charleston, South Carolina, has played in 108 games with 87 starts and owns career averages of 9.0 points and 5.7 rebounds.
"It's hard to leave such a special place," James said. "It wasn't until the last day that I really decided my final decision in returning. 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. We have a roster that can do that.
"Zakai probably would not have let me leave even if I wanted to."
Doing something that has never been done before would mean getting to the NCAA tournament's Final Four. The Vols have taken one step forward every season since the 2020 event was canceled, qualifying for the 2021 tournament before instantly getting routed by Oregon State, winning one tourney game in 2022 before falling to Michigan, and advancing twice this past March before getting upset by Florida Atlantic in the Sweet 16.
Tennessee is coming off a 25-11 season that was highlighted by a defeat of No. 1 Alabama and an NCAA second-round thumping of Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champion Duke, and ninth-year coach Rick Barnes knows where this season's team starts.
"I got a really good call the other night from one of our parents who said that until Josiah and Santi decided to come back, they were concerned," Barnes said. "They said it has been the best thing for their son to have those guys be big brothers to them and lead them and show them the way."
The Vols are not without new faces of intrigue, including redshirt freshman guard Freddie Dilione V, 6-11 freshman forward J.P. Estrella, Northern Colorado transfer guard Dalton Knecht and USC Upstate transfer guard Jordan Gainey, who is the son of Vols assistant Justin Gainey and could run the show until Zeigler returns.
After needing two seasons under Barnes to get on solid footing, Tennessee leads all SEC programs the past six seasons in total triumphs (144), winning percentage (.716) and postseason wins (15), which includes the league and NCAA tournaments. The Vols led the nation last season in 3-point defense (.265) while finishing third in field-goal defense (.373) and scoring defense (57.9).
"The fact is we have more depth on the perimeter than we have had since we have been here," Barnes said. "Up to this point, we have shown that we can shoot the ball, but I just know that we have a long way to go defensively. The fact is that these guys have proven to us that they want to work, and they want to be good.
"There is definitely a difference right now with the older guys in terms of the tempo and the pace we want to play with compared to the younger guys."
The Vols have a home exhibition with Lenoir-Rhyne on Oct. 31, with their home opener against Tennessee Tech set for Nov. 6.
Tennessee's 16-player roster contains 13 who are on scholarship and three walk-ons, with Grant Hurst one of the walk-ons.
The 6-2, 195-pound redshirt sophomore helped Cleveland High School to a 106-19 record before beginning his college career at UT Martin, where he played in 23 games as a backup point guard during the 2021-22 season before redshirting last season.
Hurst, who was a part of three Region 3-AAA championship teams with the Blue Raiders, entered the transfer portal on March 27.
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].