Though Sunday was a historic win for No. 3 Tennessee, Rick Barnes understands that it’s December, not March.
Every coach in the country wants their team playing its best basketball come March. Sure, Tennessee’s win over previously ranked No. 1 Gonzaga is huge, but teams are remembered for what they do come tournament time. So even though the win over the Zags will give UT something to draw back on, Tennessee is focused on improving every day.
“In December, I don’t think we’re any different than anybody else,” Barnes said this week. “We’re still trying to find ourselves. We’re still trying to create an identity that we want.”
From the outside looking in, the Vols are one of the best teams in the country. But even more importantly, for the first time in decades, Tennessee is a legitimate national title contender.
National title contenders play elite basketball on both ends of the floor, and that’s exactly what the Vols are doing. According to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, Tennessee is one of four teams that rank inside the top 15 in both offensive (15th) and defensive (10th) efficiency. Among SEC teams, Tennessee is No. 1 in assists per game (21.1) and are turning it over just 11.9 times per game, which is the second-lowest average in the conference.
“Once you get to where people are expecting big things from you, you can embrace it, and it can really make you better because you know everyone is going to come out and get after you,” Barnes explained. “Know that you’re going to have to take a lot of punches and emotional thrush from people, but I tell you if you embrace it, you really can get much better with it.”
That’s how Barnes plans to use Tennessee’s newfound expectations. After all, although the No. 3 looks pretty sitting next to the Vols’ name, it does place a bulls-eye square on their back. Night in and night out, Barnes’ squad will receive the opponent’s best effort. It’s a unique challenge that all of the top teams in the country face on a weekly basis.
“I think people would probably be surprised that we don’t really talk about it,” Barnes said. “I know they hear the chatter out there. They’ve heard it all year coming into the year.
“Our approach has been we’re gonna do what we do and be who we are. Last week, people would have probably been surprised what we went back to. We went back to the actual what we call ‘circle the wagons’ where we go bone-on-bone going at each other working on rebounding, one-on-one defense, full-court.”
What benefits Tennessee in dealing with the burden of being ranked No. 3 is that it was ranked for the latter part of last season. Because this group is older, because this group has played a lot of basketball together and because they’ve been through some ups and downs, they know it’s not going to be easy.
“They know it’s December,” Barnes said. “We’re all trying to build a resume, but we’ve got a long way to go to be where we need to be.
“I look around, and there’s been some really good college basketball games, but I know teams are gonna get much better. If you don’t continue to get better now, you’re gonna go backward. Our guys do understand that we’ve got to practice hard.”
Not a single member of the Vols was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, and as a result, they all maintain the chip on their shoulder and work hard to get better every single day. That’s why – despite the bulls-eye on its back – Tennessee is still hunting, rather than allowing itself to be the hunted.
“I’m proud of where we are as a program,” Barnes said.
Tennessee now turns its attention to a pesky Memphis team. The Tigers may lack the talent it once did, but they don’t lack heart in Penny Hardaway’s first year as head coach of his alma mater. In a sold-out FedEx Forum, the Vols will have to be locked in from the jump as Memphis will give a home run effort.
“Tennessee has great basketball in this state,” Barnes said. “When you think about Memphis, they’ve had one of those great basketball towns.
“I know how important basketball is to Memphis. I know how important now it is to the University of Tennessee.”
Tip-off from the Forum on Saturday is set for noon ET.