Rare Air: Tennessee is at the top of the basketball world

In just four seasons, Rick Barnes has built a college basketball powerhouse

Why are some programs better than others? There’s a simple answer, really.

Winning starts at the top. Great programs have great leadership. If you don’t have great leadership, you aren’t going to be very good. Not for long, anyway.

The quickest way to turn a program around is to hire a good coach. Just ask Tennessee…basketball.

Five years ago, the Volunteers struggled to a 16-16 record under head coach Donnie Tyndall, who was promptly terminated from his post after school officials learned of NCAA violations while Tyndall was the head coach at Southern Miss. The embattled program then looked to veteran coach Rick Barnes, who needed second wind after being fired at the University of Texas. It’s been a good fit so far.

Improvement has been a consistent theme across Barnes’ four years in Knoxville. After struggling to a 15-19 record in Barnes’ first year, the Volunteers have slowly reached a higher and higher substation on the journey to the college basketball mountaintop.

Last season the Volunteers won the SEC regular season championship and finished 26-9 (13-5 SEC). Although Loyola-Chicago, a bona fide Cinderella that advanced all the way to the Final Four, bounced the Vols from the tournament in the second round, by all accounts it was one of the most successful seasons in recent history.

This season, the Volunteers have won 17 straight games and stand at 21-1 overall. They are currently the No. 1 team in the country.

Admiral Schofield | Photo By Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics

Barnes has proven to be a brilliant recruiter while in Knoxville. He’s had a knack of finding diamonds in the rough, 3-star recruits that just need a little polishing before they sparkle. Case in point was Admiral Schofield from the north Chicago area. Schofield was a 3-star coming out of Zion-Benton Township High, and was not heavily recruited by any of the traditional blue bloods. While in close proximity to Notre Dame and Wisconsin, neither team offered him. Schofield is now averaging 16.6 ppg and 6.3 rpg, and is shooting 40 percent from the three-point line. Last season, he was a second-team All-SEC honoree and will probably elevate to first-team this season when it’s all said and done.

“I can’t imagine anybody working harder than Admiral Schofield, I really can’t,” Barnes told The Newport Plain Talk. “He is a guy that just loves the game. He loves putting time in. Honestly, his passion is to just really be admired.”

Grant Williams | Photo By Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics

Three years ago, Barnes went and stole Charlotte native Grant Williams out from under the noses of the schools of Tobacco Row. Williams, a bright kid whose mother works at NASA, was being recruited mostly by Ivy League schools—Harvard and Yale—when Barnes and the Vols came a-calling. Today he’s the SEC’s leading scorer at 20.1 points per game. Last season, he was the SEC’s Player of the Year. And unless something dramatic happens, he’ll win it again this year.

Those two guys set the footing so an orange mansion could be built high in the Smokies. Williams and Schofield are indeed a lethal 1-2 punch, but Barnes didn’t stop there. He went out and added the role players to complement them. In came Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, and Kyle Alexander, to name a few.

The Tennessee roster is a diverse one that includes two international players, Alexander and Yves Pons, and players hailing from eight different states. Barnes preferred to pilfer prep schools (say that five times), pulling players from mostly private institutions (say that five times), and only three players on the roster came from a public school system.

During the current winning streak, the Volunteers have knocked off then-No.1 Gonzaga, cross-state rival Memphis, traditional Big 12 power West Virginia, and nine Southeastern Conference opponents. The team’s only loss was to No.2 Kansas on November 23, and even then it took the Jayhawks an extra period to slay the Volunteers.

Although Williams and Schofield get the most pub, the Volunteers’ offensive attack boasts five players who average in double figures. Bone is tossing in 13.5 ppg and leads the team with 6.6 assists per contest. He has also hit the most three-pointers among Tennessee guards not named Schofield.

Though he has been hampered with a shoulder injury, 6’2” guard Lamonte Turner is athletic and can score, reaching the 20-point mark twice this season.

Jordan Bowden ranks second in the conference in field goal percentage, shooting at an amazing 57 percent from the floor. Tennessee is 11-0 when he scores at least 10 points.

The Volunteers’ success is not simply a reflection of Barnes’ ability to recruit. He does a good job of developing and meshing talent once they get to campus. And he has definitely won the love and respect of his players. “Coach Barnes pushes you to the point where you know you’re going to be great if you buy in,” Williams said. “You’ll succeed.”

Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes | Photo By Maury Neipris/Tennessee Athletics

Could this be the year for Tennessee men’s basketball? With balance, depth, and the duo of Schofield and Williams clicking, Tennessee is a team that could cut down the nets this spring. The X-factor might possibly be the chip resting comfortably on the Volunteers’ shoulders.

“We’re a bunch of two- and three-star guys, trying to make a name for ourselves,” Schofield recently told Sports Illustrated.

In review, Tennessee basketball has had greater success than its football counterpart, in large part because the Volunteer administration has made better coaching hires in basketball than in football. Between tenures of Bruce Pearl, Cuonzo Martin, and now Rick Barnes, Tennessee has made eight tournament appearances and has averaged more than 21 wins per season since 2005-06.

Now that the Volunteers have reached the mountaintop, the question is whether or not their stay will be long—or rocky. H&A


Al Blanton

Al Blanton

Born in Jasper, Alabama, Al is the owner and publisher of Blanton Media Group.
Al Blanton

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