DALLAS, TX - MARCH 15: Head coach Rick Barnes of the Tennessee Volunteers looks on in the first half while taking on the Wright State Raiders in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at American Airlines Center on March 15, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Rick Barnes’ overachieving Volunteers still streaking

Posted March 15th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • Rick Barnes took a Tennessee team picked 13th in a 14-team SEC to a share of the league title.
  • Barnes loved his time at Texas but is more than content in Knoxville with a team that won its first-round NCAA tournament game.
  • Tennesse has no five-star recruits or McDonald's All-Americans but play tough, crowd-pleasing defense.

DALLAS — Rick Barnes leaned back in the leather chair in a small office inside the American Airlines Center and pointed to his left knee that he had partially replaced just a month ago.

The doctors didn’t take a knife to any muscle but corrected the painful bone-on-bone dilemma with a very simple procedure. A thinner, happier and certainly more appreciated Barnes smiled broadly about his, uh, rehabilitation.

“In on a Wednesday,” Barnes said of the medical procedure. “And I coached on Saturday.”

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Barnes bounces back quickly. On and off the court. That’s the stuff this personable, 63-year-old Tennessee basketball coach is made of. After all, how could he expect his team of overlooked grinders and three-star recruits to be resilient if he took time off?

DALLAS, TX – MARCH 15: Head coach Rick Barnes of the Tennessee Volunteers looks on in the second half while taking on the Wright State Raiders in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at American Airlines Center on March 15, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Nothing keeps the irrepressibly optimistic Barnes down. Not for very long. Not even getting fired at Texas after 17 mostly fulfilling seasons with some tremendous highs, including a Final Four.

Barnes more than landed on his feet in Knoxville. He positioned himself as the savior for a Tennessee program starving for success and in Year 3 is delivering results — including Thursday’s 73-47 win over Horizon League champion Wright State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Of course, he may be starving too.

He dropped 25 pounds after a European tour last offseason when his son, Nick, encouraged him to get fitter and dispense with all the bread and sugar. Now he’s living off the highs of basketball as he pursues an elusive national championship and brought Volunteers fans a steady diet of tough defense and athletic offensive players.

Knoxville has responded. More than 22,000 crammed into Thompson-Boling Arena to watch Tennessee whip Georgia to clinch a share of the SEC crown this month, but that’s nothing unusual for a program whose average attendance ranked eighth in the nation.

“They’ve fallen in love with this team,” Barnes said of Vol Nation. “But when we sold out against North Carolina, I told everyone we’re not the buzz. The buzz was North Carolina. When we played Georgia, we were the buzz.”

That buzz isn’t expected to dissipate any time soon. Asked how many times they drew close to capacity in the Erwin Center, Barnes mused, “Not very many.”

That’s true, not even when one-and-done Kevin Durant was lighting up the scoreboard. Barnes joked, “I don’t think anybody knew we had him until he was halfway done.”

There are no Durants on Barnes’ current squad, but the coach insists he and his staff are “involved” in big-name recruits. Currently Barnes has the fifth youngest team in the nation with 10 underclassmen and only one senior and has almost his entire team back for next year.

DALLAS, TX – MARCH 15: Jordan Bone #0 of the Tennessee Volunteers goes up for a shot against Parker Ernsthausen #22 of the Wright State Raiders in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at American Airlines Center on March 15, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Barnes has taken an inspired bunch of misfits, if you will, who were picked to finish 13th in their 14-team league and turned them into an SEC co-champion and a No. 3 seed. And those Volunteers made good in their opener behind Admiral Schofield’s double-double and tenacious defense to advance to Saturday’s second round.

Schofield, an explosive 6-5 power forward out of Zion, Ill., just happened to be watching Barnes’ going-away press conference in Austin. He was suitably impressed and said Thursday, “I thought wouldn’t it be awesome if we got him to Tennessee.”

His wish came true. None of Tennessee’s players are McDonald’s All-Americans or five-star recruits. Barnes said Schofield probably would have come to Texas or joined Bob Huggins in West Virginia if Barnes hadn’t been hired in Knoxville. So, too, might have 6-11 center Kyle Alexander been a Longhorn.

Grant Williams, a feisty sophomore forward who’s about two inches shorter than his 6-7 listed height, would have been an Ivy Leaguer at Harvard or Yale if he hadn’t chosen Tennessee. He carries a 3.80 GPA in international business, is fluent in Spanish and reminds some of another former Longhorn.

When the Houston Rockets’ rugged P.J. Tucker texted Barnes and told him he liked Williams’ style, Barnes replied, “You should. He’s you.”

Williams is this year’s SEC player of the year and typical of a Tennessee team that’s earning respect game by game. Barnes preaches hard work to his scrappy 26-8 Volunteers who skyrocketed to a share of the SEC regular-season title for only the fourth time in the last 40 years and made him SEC coach of the year, if not the best in the nation.

The fit for the new coach couldn’t be any more seamless.

He’s at another Southern football school after his time at Texas and Clemson. He’s less than three hours from his mom in his hometown of Hickory, N.C. His wife, Candy, is a Tennessee grad. And Barnes is as energized and passionate about basketball as ever.

Just thinner.

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