Rick Barnes willing Tennessee to new level

Coach delivering success in third year with program

It didn’t take Rick Barnes 1,000 career games to learn how to develop high-performing basketball players. Since his first year as a head coach (at George Mason, 1987-88), he has led his teams to 22 NCAA Tournament berths.

When Barnes left Texas at age 61 to coach the University of Tennessee, the people in his life must have been some combination of puzzled and concerned about his legacy. But the coach knows how to build a winning program; he’s done so at virtually every stop along his career path.

Now, Tennessee’s historically frustrating men’s basketball team is on a meteoric rise and poised to take its rightful place among Barnes’s best success stories.

UT experienced a handful of explosive moments under former head coach Bruce Pearl, but the culture and energy both were erratic and loose. And while it was fun in the moment, it was a formula ripe for implosion – and implode it did. Under Barnes’ direction, however, Tennessee is an entirely different creature.

The third-year coach has quietly and methodically built a UT team that is as gritty, unselfish and relentless as any the program has ever seen. In place of the star-studded classes of All-Americans that schools like Duke and Kentucky sign every year, Barnes has focused on establishing a blue-collar mindset, a defense-first chippiness and enviable quality depth on the bench.

In out-of-conference play, the Vols dropped games only to powerhouses Villanova and North Carolina. Even in those losses, Tennessee played unfazed basketball and was in positions to win both games, letting substantial leads slip in each.

In true Tennessee fashion, the Vols charged into SEC competition with a pair of baffling, lackluster losses to Auburn and Arkansas. Tennessee fans are no strangers to this team falling apart down the stretch, but everything about the program feels different now. Even in those losses, you could see that the players were not rattled.

That composure was never more vivid as it was when Tennessee bounced back from losing to Auburn by casually defeating a top-20 Kentucky side in Knoxville. The scrappy Vols then took their show on the road to Nashville, where Barnes and company squared off against Vanderbilt. After trailing for much of the game, UT overcame the Commodores, too.

The Vols finally are steady now. And while there most likely still will be a few bumps along the road to March, that stability certainly – at least partially – stems from Barnes’ influence, his 1,000 games as a college coach and his determination to raise one more program up to realizing its full potential.

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