Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes has a reputation of “choking” in the NCAA Tournament in his coaching career. And on the surface, his 22-23 all-time record in the NCAA Tournament supports that notion.
But Vol fans don’t need to worry too much about Barnes’ bad history in the tournament. Why? Because he’s actually been pretty exceptional when he’s been the head coach of one of the top seeds in the Big Dance.
This year will mark the 24th time that Barnes has coached a team that’s made it to the NCAA Tournament. He made it there three times in six years with Providence, three times in four years with Clemson, and 16 times in 17 years with Texas. This year marks his second time making the tournament with the Vols in his fourth year with the program.
In those previous 23 appearances, Barnes has been the head coach of a No. 2 or No. 1 seed only three times. But those three instances have led to the deepest runs his teams have gone on during the tournament.
Barnes’ 2002-03 Texas squad earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and he took that team to the Final Four. They beat UNC-Asheville, Purdue, UConn, and Michigan State before losing to eventual national champion Syracuse. His 2005-06 Longhorns team earned a two-seed, and he took them to the Elite Eight in that tournament. Texas beat Penn, NC State, and West Virginia before falling to LSU in overtime. Two seasons later, his 2007-08 squad earned a two-seed and once again made it to the Elite Eight. That team defeated Austin Peay, Miami, and Stanford before losing to eventual national title runner-up Memphis.
When Barnes’ teams have been at least a No. 2 seed, he’s taken them to at least the Elite Eight every single time. Barnes has a 10-3 record as the head coach of a team that’s either a two-seed or a one-seed.
In his other 20 tournament appearances, Barnes has gone 12-20 and has only made it to the Sweet Sixteen two times.
Last year, Tennessee earned a three-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the Vols only made it to the second round before falling to Loyola-Chicago on a last second shot. That team followed Barnes’ pattern of losing early in the tournament as a three-seed or lower. If this year’s team follows the pattern of what he’s done with his previous three teams that have been top seeds in the tournament, then Tennessee should at least tie school history by making it to the Elite Eight for only the second time ever.
Tennessee as a program doesn’t have the greatest history as a two-seed, but the Vols also don’t have a storied history in the NCAA Tournament in general anyway. UT is 3-2 all-time as a No. 2 seed, losing in the second round in 2006 and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen in 2008 before being blown out by No. 3 seed Louisville.
Of course, the Vols have only ever made it to one Elite Eight as an entire program since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. That’s one Elite Eight in 34 years. Barnes at least has three separate Elite Eight appearances in his previous 31 years of coaching.
Barnes’ track record in the NCAA Tournament as a whole may not be what you’d expect for a coach with nearly 700 career victories, but he’s been at his best when his teams have earned better seeds. This year’s Tennessee team fits that billing perfectly, and the Vols could be set up to follow in the footsteps of those previous three Texas’ teams.