For the first 25 years of Rick Barnes coaching career, his teams generally succeeded in the home stretch of the regular season. But over the last five years and during his entire tenure at Tennessee, Barnes’ teams have, for whatever reason, not been able to close the regular season on a strong note.
Barnes has been coaching for over three decades. This season marks his 31st as a head coach, and it’s his third with Tennessee. For the vast majority of his coaching career, Barnes’ teams closed out the final full month of the regular season with vigor. Barnes’ teams were 116-77 in the month of February in his first 25 years of coaching.
But over the last five years (not counting this season), Barnes’ squads have gone just 17-22 in February. And that includes a 5-10 record in the month of February in his first two years as the Vols’ coach.
Tennessee is off to a solid start in February this season so far, going 3-1 in their first four games of the month. But the Vols still have four games left to play in February, and they’ll be on the road for three of those contests.
Barnes has only once gone over .500 in the month of February over the last five years. His 2013-14 Texas squad went 5-3 in the month of February. But every other team Barnes has coached in the last five years has finished .500 or worse in the final month of the regular season.
Last year, the Vols entered the month of February on a hot streak and were trying to play their way onto the NCAA Tournament bubble. Tennessee won four straight games to close out January and were 13-9 overall.
But then February came, and the Vols managed to go just 3-5 in the month. Their hopes of an NCAA Tournament appearance were dashed in the final month of the regular season.
Granted, Barnes has dealt with injuries to his star players in the last month-plus of the regular season his first two seasons at Tennessee. The Vols lost Kevin Punter down the stretch of the 2015-16 season and had an ailing and injured Robert Hubbs last season.
This year (knock on wood), the Vols haven’t dealt with a devastating injury like the last two years. But those two instances notwithstanding, Barnes has struggled in February recently. His last three Texas squads were just 12-12 in the month of February.
The Vols themselves haven’t been good in February for a while either. The last time Tennessee earned a record above .500 in the month was in 2013 when they went 6-2. Since then, they’ve gone just 10-21 in the month over the last four seasons.
If Tennessee wants stay inside the top 16 overall seeds for the NCAA Tournament, they need to kick their recent trend of floundering down the stretch. And that goes for Rick Barnes too. The Vols have done enough at this point that a berth in the tournament is fairly guaranteed. But another February to forget will plummet the Vols into a lower seed and lower their chances of getting past their first round match-up.