Over the last three years, Tennessee’s men’s basketball program has been toiling away in obscurity. The Vols hadn’t had a season above .500 since the 2013-14 season and failed to move the needle from a national perspective in a positive way. If not for the Donnie Tyndall fiasco, the Vols wouldn’t have made news at all the last three years.
But that’s all changed this season.
Right now, the Vols sit at No. 19 in the country according to the AP Poll, and they just earned their 20th win of the season on Wednesday night when they defeated Florida 62-57. That marks the earliest the Vols have achieved 20 wins in a season since the 2009-10 squad won their 20th game on February 20th.
And according to Tennessee Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer, the Vols’ head basketball coach is the main reason why the Vols are in such good shape.
Fulmer appeared on The Paul Finebaum Show this week and was asked about the Vols’ surprising season in hoops. Tennessee was picked to finish second-to-last in the conference by SEC media before the season, but they currently sit in second place behind only Auburn in the conference standings.
“It’s been really fun to watch,” Fulmer said of the Vols’ basketball team. “We were picked 13th in the league, and this guy has us right there in the conference and in the NCAA (Tourmanet). It shows what coaching can do. It can really make a difference.”
Unlike Kentucky, Missouri, Alabama, Auburn, and others in the SEC, Tennessee doesn’t have a former top-100 overall player on their roster. According to 247Sports, the Vols’ highest-rated player currently on their roster is former four-star Yves Pons who was rated by their composite rankings as the No. 127 overall player in the 2017 class. And he only averages 4.4 minutes a game.
Lamonte Turner was the No. 144 overall player in the 2015 class, and Jalen Johnson (147th), Jordan Bone (171st), and Grant Williams (191st) are the only other top-200 overall players on Tennessee’s roster according to 247Sports.
But if you compare that to teams like Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M, Missouri, and even Mississippi State, the Vols are extremely under-talented compared to many of their SEC brethren. Yet the Vols have outplayed most of those teams all season.
Fulmer says it’s because of coaching. And he believes Barnes is getting the most out of the players Tennessee has.
“He’s taken some good players, I mean I don’t know if there are any five-stars in that group at all, but he’s taken some good players and coached them all really hard,” Fulmer told Finebaum. “And from one year to the next, we’ve gotten better and better.”
The Vols won a total of 14 SEC games in 36 conference games in Barnes’ first two years as head coach in Knoxville. But this season the Vols have 10 conference victories in 15 SEC games, and all three of their remaining games against conference foes are winnable.
Tennessee is one of the most improved teams in the country this season. And Fulmer is giving all the praise to Rick Barnes for that transformation.