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Rick Barnes’ Tennessee Identity Carries Vols To Battle 4 Atlantis Title

Photo via Tennessee Athletics

Rick Barnes felt a flash of déjà vu. Tennessee was leading a top five team and perennial national title contender Kansas, 33-25, at the Battle 4 Atlantis. The Vols were in the same spot five years ago when Barnes’ program was first breaking through the light.

In Barnes’ third year, Tennessee earned a ranked win over Purdue to open the tournament before leading No. 5 Villanova by 12 points at halftime in the semifinals of the 2017 event. The Wildcats opened the second half on a 27-2 run and handled Tennessee on their way to winning the Battle 4 Atlantis and the National Championship.

That wouldn’t be the case Friday night in The Bahamas. Tennessee’s defense sucked the life out of Kansas and the Vols coasted to a, 64-50, victory to win the 2022 Battle 4 Atlantis.

“The real message at halftime was we were here 5 years ago against the future national champion in Villanova,” Barnes said Friday. “They came out and kicked our butt in the second half. We were in the same spot, up 12 or something like that. They came out and I said we are going to see how far we have grown as a program.”

Tennessee’s win over No. 3 Kansas was one that mirrored the program Barnes’ has built in Knoxville. 

The Vols did it with elite defense and relentless toughness. Tennessee held Kansas to its fewest points and points per possession in a game since 2014. The elite defensive performance came after Tennessee played on consecutive days allowing 45 and 66 points against Butler and USC (overtime) respectively.

“I think we like to play defense,” Zakai Zeigler said. “That’s how I would put it. Like I said earlier, if you can’t stop the man in front of you, then you have no shot of winning the game. But if you can, you’ve got a pretty good shot even if you can’t make a shot or not. We just like to play defense and happen to be good at it thanks to (Barnes).”

Tennessee found success in The Bahamas getting back to the expected identity and culture that it lacked in its early season loss to Colorado.

More From RTI: Three Takeaways From Tennessee’s Win Over Kansas

The Vols three wins — most notably the Kansas game — erases the wounds of that early season loss and is all the more impressive considering Tennessee did it without Josiah-Jordan James. James is arguably Tennessee’s most important player and is its most versatile player and undoubted leader.

“It just shows the toughness of our team,” Zeigler said of winning without James. “That any guy at any moment can step up no matter who is having a good game or a bad game, and that we all have that fight in us and we all have each other’s back. There were moments in tonight’s game where players were getting into it and it was just competitive, telling each other to stop our man and not letting anything happen anymore. But I would say the fight in our team and the mental toughness.”

Players confronting and holding each other accountable after defensive mistakes in a phenomenal defensive performance? That’s what Barnes wants to see in his program.

“I liked the fact tonight they were getting on each other,” Barnes said with a smile postgame.

Tennessee’s three wins in The Bahamas weren’t often pretty. Pretty wins aren’t the identity of the program Barnes has built. That will bother some but consistent pretty offense isn’t the reality of the vast majority of college basketball programs.

Barnes built a winner through defense and toughness. It shined through at the Battle 4 Atlantis.

“It has been three days of hard-nosed defensive basketball against some physicality, different matchups,” Barnes said. “These guys came up here with this in mind. I am really happy for them. They’ve worked hard. They worked hard getting ready for this.”

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