The Vols have taken down Kentucky twice under Rick Barnes. They pulled off the massive upset last season when the unraked Vols took down No. 4 Kentucky 82-80 in Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee also defeated No. 20 Kentucky 84-77 at home in 2016.
But both those Volunteer squads failed to capitalize on those victories. Last year’s win over Kentucky was huge for morale, but it mattered little in the long run as the Vols finished .500 on the year and missed out on postseason play.
This season, however, appears to be different. And Sunday’s match-up with No. 7 North Carolina is arguably the biggest game of Rick Barnes’ tenure at Tennessee.
The Vols are currently ranked No. 20 in the AP Poll, and that’s the highest ranking Tennessee has earned in the poll since 2010. Coincidentally, the Vols are off to their best start in a season since 2010 as well. Tennessee is currently 7-1, and the last time they were 7-1 was at the start of the 2010 season.
Tennessee appears poised this season to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. And a win over the Tarheels would be huge for what is already an impressive tournament resume.
And it would be another “first” since 2010.
The Vols haven’t beaten a top 10 non-conference opponent since they took down No. 3 Pittsburgh 83-76 on December 11th, 2010. Every top 10 victory they’ve had from that point till now has been against SEC foes (Florida 2012, Florida 2013, Kentucky 2017).
In fact, counting the two ranked teams the Vols have faced this season, Tennessee is just 4-10 against ranked opponents under Rick Barnes. The Vols have defeated a ranked Purdue squad and lost to a top 5 Villanova team this season already.
The last time Tennessee and North Carolina played, the Tar Heels were No. 7 in the country just like this year. That meeting was on December 11th of last year, and the Vols jumped out to a huge lead early.
But Tennessee couldn’t hold on, and the Tar Heels came away with a 73-71 victory on their home court.
North Carolina has defeated Tennessee nine out of the ten times they’ve played them and own a four-game winning streak over the Vols. The last time Tennessee beat North Carolina was in 1949 when they won 84-56.
The two teams have only played four times in the “modern era,” and North Carolina has won all four times. They won 74-69 in 2000, 94-81 in 2004, 101-87 in 2006, and 73-71 last year. The only other time these two teams have both been ranked in the AP Poll when playing each other was in 2006. The Vols were No. 22 and the Tarheels were No. 2 in the country.
For national perception, the Vols need a victory over North Carolina on Sunday. They don’t necessarily need it to make the NCAA Tournament, but it would give them that “signature win” they could point to. And a win over the Tarheels would prove that this team is no fake contender either.
This game isn’t “make or break” for Rick Barnes. But it’s still arguably his biggest game as the Vols’ head basketball coach. And a win would go a long way in giving fans reason to believe in him and this team.