Somewhere on Earth 2, in Dimension X, in the Upside Down or in whatever alternate, mirror reality you prefer, the University of Tennessee’s historically awful football team just wrapped up an unusually exciting year and is preparing for a New Year’s Day bowl appearance. Fans know better than to give momentary football success too much weight, though. After all, UT is a basketball school first and foremost, and the men’s team simply is having a rare off year so far.
Back on regular Earth, however, Tennessee is a football school, through and through. The men’s basketball program has seen a dusting of up years in the last decade, but there’s really no comparison between the two. Even in the midst of the worst season in UT football history, speculation about and coverage of the sport is turned up to an ear-blistering volume on Rocky Top. Couple the lopsidedness of Tennessee’s immediately legendary coaching search full of deceit, mystery, anger, and chaos with the pure bliss that followed Jeremy Pruitt’s subsequent arrival, and a person might not notice that a portal from Earth 2 has opened across Phillip Fulmer Way from Neyland Stadium. The alternate-reality version of the men’s basketball team has climbed into our dimension and is ready for primetime.
The gateway to the here and now was ripped open when UT hired Rick Barnes away from Texas, where he had seen success but was in turmoil with the university’s administration. Barnes brought a few things to Tennessee basketball that it has desperately lacked for forever. He brought top-tier experience, a verified mind for the game and a steady hand.
Bruce Pearl was loved for his success at UT, but that success was fueled by a cartoonish, built-to-spill madness (which eventually did spill). Cuonzo Martin led the team an inspirational run to the Sweet 16 in 2014, but it was driven by Martin and his players’ anger and frustration over how a large segment of the fans had disregarded the coach’s winning record and petitioned for his firing. Neither of these models allowed for built-on success.
Enter Rick Barnes, who approaches his job with dry wit, quiet confidence and enough patience and perspective to build and cultivate a functional culture around a competitive program. And if you’ve been able to ignore the awful noise concerning the state of the football program, you’ve seen the arrival of a very solid, very deep Tennessee basketball team that vividly reflects the guile of the mastermind who guided them from fantasyland into reality.
At the time this article was written, the Vols were preparing to face NCAA basketball royalty, the perennial powerhouse that is the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Normally, the excitement of having a legendary program in town is cool enough to forgive the bloodbath Tennessee would experience playing against stud athletes that UT had no hope of recruiting in previous years. But Rick Barnes has worked for two years toward producing a team that, in spite of its disadvantage in terms of size or pedigree, is capable of walking onto a court in any venue and punching its opponent in the teeth. The culmination of his efforts is the 2017-18 Tennessee Volunteers.
From the early games against High Point and Presbyterian, Tennessee’s relentless defense, rapid substitutions and offensive organization have led UT to looking composed, fiery and businesslike. By the time the team knocked off a ranked Purdue squad despite giving up glaring amounts of size to the Boilermakers, the Vols seemed settled into their identity as a grossly underestimated unit that genuinely believes it can – and will – outshoot, outwork and outrun anyone on its schedule. Even in Tennessee’s only loss (to current top-ranked Villanova), UT was unfazed by the mismatch, taking large leads at times and remaining competitive into the final minute of play.
These are the results of steady, informed coaching.
In his short time on Rocky Top, Barnes has built a team and a program around – and with keen awareness to – the circumstances at hand. Tennessee does not get the recruits that programs like Kentucky or Duke can get based on their brand familiarity. It’s likely that Barnes will never recruit a Kevin Durant to UT like he did at Texas. He knows this and is wise enough not to waste time trying to change that fact. Instead, he expounds upon his players the need for hustle and focus while developing quality depth.
Outside of a bit of light national recognition for Grant Williams, there are no stars on this Tennessee team, and there is no central personality. This leaves opponents struggling to scheme for UT’s offense, as the Vols have gotten star-like offensive performances from seemingly a different player each and every game. By zeroing in on fundamentals and grit, Barnes levels the regular advantages of other teams by taking their legs out from underneath them. This is an easy plan for coaches to conceive, but in practice it is very difficult to implement into a team.
Having said all of this, there’s a decent chance that a team like UNC, who has established a longstanding winning culture and is draped in four and five-star athletes could come into Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday, Dec. 17, and calmly dispatch of such a mismatched and traditionally feeble team as Tennessee. Moreover, Southeastern Conference play could expose underlying weaknesses and problems for the Vols. In the past, that would be the safest bet for how a season might unfold.
But this is not the UT b-ball team with which we grew up. It isn’t even the team that, under Pearl, made us collectively lose our minds. This team, picked to finish in the basement of the SEC … yet which currently is ranked 20th in the nation … is a creature that never really has been seen by Vol fans. And the new safe bet is with them, a team comprising players who trust their instructive leader, play scrappy and patient basketball and refuse to self-destruct.
Tennessee is the shadow of its former self, and that is very good news, indeed.