Tennessee travelled west on I-40 towards Nashville on Wednesday afternoon, looking for an opportunity to put together three-straight days of consistent basketball.
We’re here again, it’s SEC Tournament, which feels like it’s been five years in between last year’s, compared to just one. Who can forget last years trip, I know I won’t. Just as the Vols were getting ready to hit the court for their opening game, college basketball and the sports world were beginning to shutdown.
It was all too “surreal” as Vols head coach Rick Barnes put it, especially sitting around the night before and watching the reaction to the NBA. I remember sitting in my hotel room until 3AM watching the news, waiting on the SEC to make a decision. As I strolled into Bridgestone Arena that morning, I was expecting the worse and eventually that’s the word we received. I walked over to my friend Bob Kesling, who was about to call the Tennessee game, and he mouthed the words “it’s over” to me. We waited for a press conference from Greg Sankey, as the Tennessee team had already departed the arena and headed back to Knoxville.
So, we’re here again and Barnes says his players know what time of year it is again, it’s tournament time.
“Players know that it’s time to buckle down,” Barnes said. “They’re excited and with the weather being nice, it allows them to get out more but they know it’s tournament time. In some ways, everyone has to hit the reset button. Look at Appalachian State who lost six out of seven games before the conference tournament started, then got an automatic bid. That’s what makes tournament time special, we’ve lived it and seen those types of things happen and those things can happen anywhere at any time.”
This season has been anything but normal, from covid testing to preparing for a game. It’s taken this team and the rest of them around the country a good amount of patience to get through an entire regular season. So, when you ask Barnes how important it is to even get to this point, it’s pretty simple.
“I think it’s really important, I do,” Barnes said. “I think it’s been great for our student-athletes to have a season, even though some are different than others. Again, I’ll go back and tell you, over Christmas when we talked about—and the first time I’ve been in charge of making decisions about people going home for Christmas, this is the first time we’ve never done that. Before I did it, I talked to some parents, and certainly wanted to hear their opinion. Coaches talked to parents, and one thing with family’s said is, ‘We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize our sons with playing the game they love.”
But as Tennessee heads to Nashville this year, they’ll have two freshman that are starting to get the right feel for the game. It’s hard enough being a freshman basketball player, but also trying to be central figures into your teams game plan, it can become overwhelming. Barnes knows how much has been asked of Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, and he’s expecting them to bring that energy to Nashville.
“They’ve been asked to do a lot more from a thinking the game aspect as opposed to just using their abilities to overpower people,” Barnes said. “We’ve enjoyed coaching them, because they’re competitive. They want to win. They have dealt with the ups and downs of what I think college freshman can go through. Right now, more than ever, I hope that they can just put it all together for themselves and for us. We have high expectations. They have high expectations. Overall, I think they’ve been terrific.”
As much as Tennessee has relied on the freshman, they’re going to need John Fulkerson and Yves Pons to bring their A-game this week if they have any chance of moving on. The Vols will have only played one game over the course of two weeks, which Barnes said has been helpful for guys to recover and prepare themselves.
“I do like the fact that it’s allowed us to get healthy,” Barnes said. “It’s allowed John Fulkerson to get a little more rest. It’s allowed him to get his hand right—his shoulder right. Maybe for younger guys its probably been good mentally. This time of year, young guys have played more and done more than they’ve ever done. I’d like to think we could go to Nashville and play for a championship and get back into that rhythm. Overall, I do think this time has helped us.”
So as they head to the mid-state for another coach at a tournament championship, it’s up to them to bring the energy. They’ll be some Tennessee fans in the building, but with just over 3,000 tickets per game available, it will look like any road game. This group has to build off their performance against Florida, they can’t take a step back, which we’ve seen them do numerous times this year. It’s a bran new season and we’ll have to wait to see which Tennessee team shows up on Friday. But Barnes wants his group to experience that championship feeling, but they’ll have to scrap to get there.
“I think any time you can win a championship it means a lot,” Barnes said. “I think it sets teams apart. People recognize champions. As time goes by, they’ll bring back champions. To say championships aren’t important is not truthful, because the fact is, everybody wants to win a championship.”
Buckle up folks, It’s March, and you know what that means.