Inside how the Vols landed in the transfer class

Rod Clark checked out the Delta app on his iPhone in March.

Tennessee’s basketball season ended hours before the March 23 Sweet 16 game against FAU at Madison Square Garden. The Vols had a flight back to Knoxville from New York that morning and Clark was scheduled to be on it. But the UT assistant coach had another plan and flight in mind.

Clark was catching a flight to Boston to visit Chris Ledlum, a Harvard transfer and one of Tennessee’s top transfer targets. He called his wife, Alexis, and said they were discussing which flight to take.

“He said, ‘You’re already up there so why don’t you just go see him now?’ ” said Clark.

Clark boarded a flight at LaGuardia bound for Boston on March 24 and thus began Tennessee’s furious month of recruiting at the transfer center.

The Vols got three points from Northern Colorado guard Dalton Knecht, USC Upstate guard Jordan Gainey and Ledlum, who later fought for St. John’s in July. Tennessee’s best transfer portal under coach Rick Barnes, creates a revamped roster and a desperate hunt for more than a Sweet 16 appearance.

How Tennessee basketball coaches made transfer plans

Tennessee’s coaches hit the nail on the head after the loss to FAU, drawing up scenarios based on who’s back, who might be back, who’s gone and who’s coming.

All situations told the same story: Tennessee needed more shooting and desire to do things in multiple ways after a chaotic season and sluggish seasons when guard Zakai Zeigler suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Feb. 28.

The Vols are close to the portal as an NBA free agency in the mind of assistant coach Gregg Polinsky, who has spent more than 20 years in NBA scouting and player personnel roles.

“We address needs and really look to find guys that fit the core of your team,” Polinsky said.

UT has six expected returners, four starters and three starters. The staff knew it was possible that guard Santiago Vescovi and forward Josiah-Jordan James could return for a fifth year. But they could not rely on it.

The coaches met with the players individually to discuss the next step for each. Then all the staff come together to brainstorm and make a plan. Barnes had the final say and placed a premium on people above the player. He didn’t want to harm the culture, he added.

But the Vols had to change the composition of the backcourt. They needed to protect the lineup from one injury from the fall. They needed an honest shot. They needed players.

“We didn’t want to limit ourselves to only shooters,” said head coach Justin Gainey. “You should have been able to handle it. You should have been able to play without the ball, play with the ball.”

How Tennessee dealt with Jordan Gainey’s recruitment through family ties

Jordan Bowden could see there was something more to Jordan Gainey.

The former Vols guard was playing pickup games with Lamonte Turner at Pratt Pavilion in the summer of 2022. Gainey was in Knoxville after his first season at USC Upstate and jumped on day one. He was hesitant and it wasn’t good but Bowden still felt that Gainey had real talent.

He saw it two days later and Bowden was convinced.

“I got in my lane,” Gainey said.

Barnes watched Gainey’s games at USC Upstate as a sophomore, a keen interest because Gainey’s father, Justin, works for UT. When Gainey entered the transfer portal on April 5, Barnes was one of the first coaches to be called.

“I’d say out of everybody that you’ve recruited, (Barnes) you’ve probably seen more than anybody,” Justin Gainey said. “When they had that conversation, it was organic. It was real. It wasn’t a recruiting spiel.

“It was like, ‘Hey, I’m watching you and I know what you’re doing. I know what you need to get better to get where you’re trying to go.’ “

Barnes’ compatibility with Gainey’s game was obvious. Gainey shot 49.3% on 3-pointers as a freshman – a season in which USC Upstate played at UT. He averaged 15.3 points as a sophomore and could play the score. The Vols coach led the recruitment of both Gainey and his father, who stepped aside from recruiting to take on the role of father rather than coach.

Justin Gainey didn’t want his son to have more pressure to go to Tennessee because he is at work. Jordan Gainey wanted to feel recruited by schools because he is not the son of an assistant coach.

Everyone was in agreement. Barnes ran with it and Polinsky was instrumental in the hiring of Jordan Gainey. Justin Gainey has fielded calls from schools from every power conference about his son. Jordan Gainey fielded more calls from Barnes than anyone knows, including FaceTime calls to discuss life.

“I think he saw that the coach really wanted him here,” said Polinsky.

Tennessee had a vision for Gainey. He was a victim of opponents as a sophomore, but he certainly could have thrived on pieces with more talents than him. Introduce Gainey’s character, a simple piece of research report given Gainey’s family information.

Gainey had an idea, too. He wanted to see who really wanted him. Barnes and the Vols were in sync. He took his thoughts off his father, who reinforced the roles of father and coach during a visit to Spartanburg, South Carolina in mid-April.

The entire staff took Gainey to lunch at Cribb’s Kitchen. Gainey had a chicken sandwich. Barnes had questions, questions that showed deep connection.

“As we found out later, I think it was his intention (to come to UT),” Polinsky said. “He wanted to make sure he felt good about coach Barnes and what he was doing.”

Gainey committed on April 15 before announcing on April 18, starting a wild week in Tennessee.

How an overbooked flight helped Tennessee basketball Dalton Knecht

Knecht’s official visit to Tennessee was smooth – very smooth.

Then hiring manager Lucas Campbell called 30 minutes after Knecht was scheduled to leave Knoxville on April 16. Knecht’s flight was overbooked. He and his family are devastated in their escape.

Clark, who worked tirelessly to persuade Knecht, picked up the family at the airport. Campbell sought flight options and spoke with compliance to ensure UT stayed within legal travel rules.

The Vols suddenly had an unexpected extra day without a trip. Barnes made it the best thing that could happen.

“Coach Barnes kicked it,” Campbell said. “He wore it – he put on a show.”

Knecht’s visit was a whirlwind from the start. Clark had come in as an offensive savant, but UT wasn’t sure he’d get a visit. Knecht informed Clark that he wanted to visit him on April 12, two days before the visit.

Campbell carefully put together an itinerary that included the usual items. Campbell and director of video and analytics Luke Schapker loved Knecht’s skills. He averaged 20.2 points per game last season and made 77 3-pointers. He can do so much more.

“We pulled film on this guy and he’s like, ‘Holy cow, what can this guy do offensively?’ ” said Campbell.

Knecht was a late bloomer but “a budding guy,” Polinsky said. He was 5-foot-6 as a high school sophomore. He was 6-3 entering Northeastern Junior College in Colorado. He left Northern Colorado at 6-6.

Campbell got the background on Knecht from Northeastern coach Eddie Trenkle, who said Knecht was a basketball player who only focused on the game. Knecht sees himself as a professional and every decision he makes reflects that. Campbell learned that Knecht’s favorite player was Kevin Durant, whom Barnes coached at Texas.

Knecht also cared about playing on the big stage and training hard, especially in defense. Several conversations with Clark showed Knecht that opportunity was available at Tennessee.

“The SEC is probably the best basketball league out there and the closest to the NBA,” Knecht said. “That’s my main goal, to be in the NBA. So why not come to the best school in the SEC?”

Barnes was the last outlet.

Clark suggested that Campbell let Barnes work all day without anyone else involved — an old recruiting strategy from Barnes’ Texas days. Barnes picked up the family at Pratt Pavilion after the missed flight. He personally hosted the day, leading a tour of downtown Knoxville, taking them to dinner and giving them a tour of the campus. He answered all of Knecht’s questions about Durant from work ethic to development to mindset.

The Vols and Barnes called it, the relationship side of the UT coach blossomed Sunday afternoon and confirmed Knecht’s commitment five days later.

“He’s a great recruiter,” Justin Gainey said. “I hate even calling it hiring because you are honest about it. When it comes to that point with the coach and his boy, he doesn’t repent. … In those one-on-one settings with the coach, (who he is) is as clear as day.”

Tennessee transfer offers Final Four aspirations

Lenoir-Rhyne coach Everick Sullivan began answering a question about Knecht on Tuesday and then hesitated to gather his thoughts.

“He’s definitely a professional,” Sullivan said.

That’s what Campbell believed when he called Knecht his favorite player on the portal in April.

The way the two transfers have played in two exhibitions has the Vols believing something special could happen in Barnes’ ninth season, which opens against Tennessee Tech on Monday (6:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network+). Opposing coaches feel the same way. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and Sullivan both called Tennessee a force to reach the Final Four.

The transfer has proven so far why UT has pursued him so deeply.

Knecht starred in a performance at Tennessee, including a 28-point performance against Michigan State with a high-reel dunk. Gainey had 20 for MSU, including the game-winning free throw in an 89-88 win.

“I can honestly say that we’ve found guys that we value very much and that’s rare,” Polinsky said. “That’s rare and it may not be the case next year to recruit high school players or portal guys.”

Tennessee got Gainey to start a busy week in mid-April to round out his recruiting efforts. Vescovi announced that he would return the same day. Ledlum committed the next day. Knecht finished the week. James announced in late May that he would be returning for a fifth year.

Guard BJ Edwards, a Knoxville Catholic product, transferred to SMU in May and Ledlum’s departure returned UT to 13 scholarship spots.

It was an all-out effort by the crew to get the money transferred when Clark took over so they could enter the portal.

But everyone insisted on the same belief: the authenticity of Barnes and his method sold Gainey and Knecht. He was the frontrunner and the closest to assembling his most impressive lineup in Tennessee.

“Coach is as loyal as the day is long,” Polinsky said. “He doesn’t want to trick someone into entering. This is what we do. We do it like this. That’s why we do it. We’re going to push you, we’re going to love you and you say every word of that.”

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee Athletics. Email him at michael.wilson@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @Written by MikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will give you access to everything