Two years into the Rick Barnes era, Tennessee basketball is arguably ahead of where it should be.
After a period that saw three new coaches in as many years, a couple major overhauls of the roster and one of the youngest teams in the nation take the floor in 2016-17, it was tough to expect to rationally expect a ton from this year’s team.
Despite a mediocre 16-16 (8-10 SEC) mark, Tennessee, a team picked to finish 13th in the league, turned some heads with a run in late January that put the Vols squarely in NCAA Tournament contention as of early February. Even after their slow finish, the Vols can still point to four wins over tournament teams, an RPI that stayed in the top 50 for much of the season and a roster, which will be supplemented by Barnes’ high-ranked recruiting class in Knoxville thus far, that returns a majority of its production in 2017-18 as reasons for optimism going forward.
Still, Barnes isn’t completely content with where the Vols are two years into his tenure.
“The bottom line for me is it’s about being in the tournament, to be honest,” Barnes told reporters at his postseason press conference in Knoxville on Monday. “I can look back – we were picked 13th, which we obviously did much better than that and we put ourselves in position in February because we were willing to play a really tough, demanding, non-league schedule. And in February, we were right where you’d want to be, you’d obviously love to win some more games earlier, but with this group, like I said, our non-league schedule proved to these guys that they were good enough to play.
“I don’t think we were tough enough because I think February is a tough month. I think it’s a grind. I think people that finish strong are mentally tough, and the physical part of it too – that’s a big part – but I think it’s mental. To get where we want to go, I do think we have got to get mentally tougher.”
Following Tennessee’s impressive run in late January, the Vols finished the year 3-7, falling 59-57 to Georgia in the second round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville last Thursday. The late-season struggles exposed the young team as one not quite ready to take the next step to return Tennessee to the postseason. The Vols won’t pursue a bid for the CIT or CBI tournaments and missed the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year for the first time since 2003-05. It’ll be the first three-year postseason drought for the program since 1993-95.
And while it’s reasonable to expect that Tennessee could be back in the postseason next season, Barnes also said that UT can’t take that for granted in a league that has upgraded its coaching and overall respectability in the past couple years.
“I have enough respect for the coaches in the league too that I think they’re going to get their players better as well,” Barnes said. “So it’s our job, you think about it, there’s 14 teams in this league that are competing for the same thing. So you look at what we can do. All we can control is what we can control. We all get into recruiting situations with teams inside and out of our league – you win some, you lose some – but the fact is, once the teams come together and you get back to work, there’s teams this year that overachieved, some underachieved, but the fact is you can only be concerned with your program and what you’re doing. I think that everyday we try to address it with our guys that we’ve got to get better today. And I think our guys will.”
That leaves Tennessee players off for spring break – a feeling that Barnes said they can’t get used to.
At least one player, freshman guard Jordan Bowden, opted to remain in Knoxville to get extra work in, Barnes said, but regardless if the returning players are in town or getting away, he wants them to know that the season shouldn’t be ending in early March.
“I told our guys, they should never, ever want to be on spring break,” Barnes said. “You want to play at this time, you don’t want to be on spring break. But the fact is, and I told them that the teams that are playing postseason play are going to be playing for three more weeks, so they ought to want to get in their heads right now that they’ve still got to be working at this game. It’s a way that you really try to create the mindset that we want to play three weeks longer than we played this year.”