Tennessee’s men’s basketball team heads to Brooklyn for Thanksgiving in a much different situation than it found itself in three seasons ago – a 2015-16 campaign in which the Vols went 15-19 in Rick Barnes’ first year.
Early on in that season with a 4-1 record, the Vols traveled to Brooklyn to participate in the Barclays Center Classic. Tennessee would lose 73-70 to Georgia Washington and then fall short to Nebraska, 82-71.
Expectations are much different now for Barnes’ squad as they head north to participate in what is now called the NIT Season Tip-Off. Following a season in which the Vols won a share of the SEC regular season title and played in the SEC Tournament Championship Game, the program is in a much better place.
“We are much different,” Barnes said during a media availability on Monday. “It seems like forever ago. Our program is in a different position.”
The position that Barnes is referring to is being ranked No. 5 in the country, being predicted by many to make the Final Four, and potentially winning a national championship. Instead of being on the hunt, Tennessee is now the team with the bulls-eye on its back.
“The team that wins the tournament will have to win it. There won’t be any gimme’s,” Barnes said. “It doesn’t matter if you have a number in front of you or not, you have to go play basketball.
“Everybody thinks it’s going to be a Tennessee-Kansas final, but that isn’t going to happen unless Tennessee and Kansas play good basketball. Marquette and Louisville and capable of winning the tournament.”
Tennessee (3-0) will square off with Louisville (3-0) at 5 p.m. ET on Wednesday. If the Vols win, they’ll face the winner of No. 2 Kansas and Marquette. All four teams in the field are ranked within the top-55 of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.
“Obviously the competition is going to be really good,” Barnes stated. “When you start watching Louisville on tape and go back and look at Chris Mack’s teams, they are tough and play hard. They have a post presence and can drive the ball hard. They do a number of different things out of their scheme. This is the team we are concerned about right now.”
Mack takes over a Louisville basketball program that has been in disarray for years now, but one that finally seems to have found stability. According to ESPN, the Cardinals’ first-year head coach just signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. Five of the six signees are ranked within the top-100.
On the court, Louisville is 11th in the nation in field goal percentage in early statistics, making 53.1 percent of its shots from the field. Defensively, the Cardinals are limiting their opponents to 36.1 percent shooting.
“Chris (Mack) is a terrific coach,” Barnes said. “When you think about his teams, they are tough and hardnosed. They will defend and won’t give you much. They can switch one through four. They have a presence inside and can drive the ball well. They can execute. There is no doubt this is his team now, and he has them going the way he wants them to go.”
For Tennessee, Lamonte Turner returns at the perfect time.
Turner missed the first three games of the season due to a shoulder injury, but Barnes confirmed on Monday that the reigning SEC Sixth Man of the Year will be ready to go on Wednesday.
Against Georgia Tech in the Vols’ last game out, Tennessee was struggling to find a third scoring option with Turner sidelined. UT shot 39.6 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from distance. But what was even more glaring was the offensive production from the bench. The Yellow Jackets’ bench out-scored the Vols’ bench 34-4.
“Grant and Admiral were struggling, and sometimes you need that third guy that can go get some things,” Barnes said when asked about where getting Turner back will help the team. “And there’s no question that Lamonte has been that guy since he’s been here.
“We needed to get something from the perimeter that we weren’t getting. Jordan Bone at the end of the game started doing some things, being aggressive and driving the ball, but that’s where having Lamonte back will help us. Not only that, but what he does when we need him defensively to help us with our rotations.”
The importance of these early season tests for Tennessee can’t be stated enough. UT may be coming off a tremendous season, but every season brings a new identity. For the Vols, they’re still trying to figure out what that identity is.
“There are many teams that have yet to totally find their identity,” Barnes said. “You’re trying to win games while also building your team’s identity. You have things you need to work on, but you hope you can win some games while doing that.”
A win over a basketball program such as Louisville – and potentially No. 2 Kansas – would not only help form the identity of this year’s team, but it would affirm the identity of Barnes’ basketball program in Knoxville.