By Steve Williams
Mixed feelings have been circulating throughout Big Orange Country lately about UT men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes. By the way, that’s UT as in Tennessee, not Texas, where Barnes spent the biggest part of his successful coaching career.
Some are saying the 62-year-old Barnes is coaching from a rocking chair, a clock puncher and not hungry enough to make the Vols a force once again in the SEC and on the national scene.
But I’ve also heard Barnes is a gym rat and that’s his office. Up to this point, it does appear he enjoys developing players more than he does pounding the recruiting trail and looking for stars, or should I say the 4 and 5-stars.
Say what you want and believe what you want, but the bottom line when it comes to evaluating Barnes will be the wins and losses in the standings. After four years, if he’s not getting the job done, then it will be time for the new athletic director, whoever that turns out to be, to bring in their own guy.
It’s disappointing how far Tennessee basketball has dropped since Bruce Pearl elevated the Vols to No. 1 in the nation in 2008. If only the charismatic Pearl had admitted to his improper barbecue, the NCAA most likely would have slapped him on the wrist with a secondary violation and no telling how strong the UT program would be now under him.
Cuonzo Martin, Pearl’s replacement, was a good man, a rules abider and a good recruiter and coach. He deserved more respect than many UT fans gave him and he deserved better support than AD Dave Hart provided him.
Donnie Tyndall, Hart’s hire, might have been a good coach, but he wasn’t here long enough for us to know for sure. Anyway, his coaching past turned out to be so littered with NCAA violations, it wouldn’t have mattered how good of an X and O guy he was.
That brings us to Barnes.
At Texas, he took 16 of his 17 teams to the Big Dance, had three Elite Eight teams, a Final Four team in 2003, over 400 wins, the Longhorns’ first No. 1 ranking in the nation in 2010 and was Big 12 Conference Coach of the Year for the fourth time in 2014.
So what happened in 2015 that landed him at Tennessee in 2016? Maybe it was just a buildup of things. Maybe it was just time for a change.
The knock on Barnes is that he’s had only one post-season conference tournament title and that was in the Big East at Providence in 1994. And his NCAA tourney record at Texas was 18-14.
Barnes didn’t look or sound like a coach that was burned out when he arrived in Knoxville.
His team was 11-11 overall and 4-5 in the SEC after it sent Kentucky home with an 84-77 loss last Feb. 2. Thompson-Boling was really rockin’ that night.
The Vols lost Kevin Punter, their top scorer, to injury down the stretch and dropped their last four regular season games. But they didn’t quit and beat Auburn and Vandy before being eliminated by LSU in the SEC quarterfinals.
Barnes’ first season at Tennessee ended 15-19 overall and 6-12 in SEC for 12th place.
The young Vols have been picked to finish 13th in the conference this winter.
In his pre-game comments, Barnes says the team has a good attitude and is working together. He says there’s been competition every day at every position and “it’s going to help us become a better team.”
I don’t recall Tennessee ever having a team this young. Thirteen of the 16 players on the roster are either freshmen or sophomores.
One of those freshmen is Jordan Bowden, former Carter High standout. The three words he uses to describe Coach Barnes are “intense, funny and competitive.”
That doesn’t sound to me like a coach who has hung it up.