While Rick Barnes was largely praised as a solid hire and a stabilizing force for a Tennessee basketball program that was in crisis following the 2014-15 season, there’s been one primary question about the work he’s done so far in Knoxville.
Where is the star power?
Barnes hasn’t lit up the recruiting rankings as he enters his third cycle in 2016-17.
His first class, which was a mixed bunch assembled by former UT coach Donnie Tyndall and Barnes, had four high school players that had an average 247Sports Composite ranking of No. 266 nationally. Barnes’ first full class in 2016 brought in six newcomers who averaged a No. 205 ranking nationally. The 2017 class features just one player thus far – center Zach Kent, who is ranked as the No. 179 player in the country. No player signed under Barnes has been ranked higher than a three-star prospect.
Any way it’s sliced, Barnes hasn’t recruited on paper at the level of the likes of Ben Howland at Mississippi State, Bruce Pearl at Auburn or Avery Johnson at Alabama – other coaches who have taken SEC jobs in recent years.
But while there hasn’t been much in terms of star power in the rankings, Barnes and the Vols are beginning to show that they may have some future stars on the court. While this young bunch couldn’t quite finish the job, the Vols showed in Chapel Hill on Sunday afternoon that they are potentially building a special young nucleus in a 73-71 loss against the No. 7 Tar Heels.
Playing an iconic program with a veteran-heavy roster on the road, the Vols counted on freshmen for four of their six highest minute totals against UNC. The young Vols had a lead that stretched to 15 at one point, led over 30 minutes of the game and pushed the top-10 team to the brink, causing legendary coach Roy Williams to tell reporters after the game that he felt the luckiest he ever had in his career to get a victory.
Forward John Fulkerson, the second-lowest ranked player in the 2016 class for the Vols, continues to show loads of potential. He’s been a stat-sheet stuffer in his brief career at UT thus far, and he put up a solid line of eight points (4/4 FG), four boards, two steals, a block and an assist on Sunday. Grant Williams, battling one of the top front courts in the nation, finished with six points, six boards and four blocks.
Guard Jordan Bowden, the lowest-ranked player in the 2016 class, now has double-digit points in three of his last four games after adding 12 points and five rebounds at UNC. Redshirt freshman Lamonte Turner, coming off a 24-point performance against Presbyterian, added nine against the Tar Heels.
Regardless of what their rankings said, these young guys can play.
That’s not to mention the injured Jordan Bone, who some think is the most talented of the bunch, or sophomore Shembari Phillips, who has been doing an admirable job filling in at the point, even though it isn’t his natural spot, or other youngsters such as Kwe Parker, the redshirting Jalen Johnson or sophomore Kyle Alexander, all of whom have plenty of upside as well.
I don’t want to get too carried away with the praise of this young nucleus.
There’s certainly plenty of work to be done for Barnes and this Tennessee (4-4) program. A close loss, regardless of the opponent, still isn’t what they’re looking for, and some of these young players made mistakes in this closing moments that allowed UNC to complete the comeback. It was ultimately senior Robert Hubbs III – the one player on the roster who did have some star power in recruiting – who played the best on Sunday with 21 points (9/11 shooting) and six rebounds. The early returns from some of these players, however, is impressive.
The biggest question surrounding Barnes might be less of an issue than many thought. He appears to be finding young stars – only they are showing up on the court, and not in the recruiting rankings.