When Rick Barnes was hired at Tennessee, one of the early questions was, “Which Rick Barnes are we getting?” From 2003-08 at Texas, he made a Final Four, two other Elite Eights, and won the Big 12 twice. It became success the program had a hard time duplicating, a conversation we were familiar with from a football standpoint. But from a basketball standpoint, Tennessee was much more vulnerable in looking for its third coach in as many years. Barnes’ “weaknesses” still looked like strengths for the Vols seven years ago this week. (The comments from Rocky Top Talk are a good reflection of all this.)
Seven years later, his strengths are indeed now our own: a conference title when picked to finish 13th in the league, a month at number one the next season, and now our first SEC Tournament championship since 1979. The Vols have seven Top 5 wins under his watch, and are 10-7 against Kentucky. And any questions about recruiting no longer exist. The program has signed eight consensus five-stars since 2000; Barnes has five of them in the last four years.
All of that is meant to position you as well as possible in the bracket, when it all matters most. And in positioning, Tennessee has also excelled. The Vols have earned a Top 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament only five times in our history. Barnes has three of those in the last five years.
Heartbreak has followed, of course. Sister Jean. Ryan Cline. 2-for-18.
In this, we’ve found ourselves circling back to one of those first questions: “Can his success at Texas be duplicated at Tennessee?” Approached, no doubt. Approached, and counted as not just progress, but new heights. Many of the things Rick Barnes is doing at Tennessee haven’t been done here, recently or ever.
We’re also, so far, a school with a hard ceiling in March: one Elite Eight, no Final Fours. Sometimes I think this idea makes our tournament shortcomings even more painful: history is out there, just a few wins down the road.
It’s history Barnes achieved at Texas, multiple times, in the peak of his tenure there. So something we didn’t even deem necessary for success here when he was hired – can we be as good as they were at their best – has re-entered the chat.
One piece of good news on that front: in at least one way, we’ve already done it.
Rick Barnes Teams in KenPom, 2002-2022
|2019||Vols||26.24||2||Sweet 16||Lost 2/3 game in OT|
|2011||Texas||25.93||4||Round 2||Lost 4/5 game by 1|
|2006||Texas||25.79||2||Elite 8||Lost in OT|
|2008||Texas||25.09||2||Elite 8||Lost to #1 Memphis|
|2022||Vols||24.80||3||Round 2||2-of-18 from 3|
|2003||Texas||23.49||1||Final Four||33 points for Carmelo in F4|
|2018||Vols||22.27||3||Round 2||Sister Jean|
|2010||Texas||20.75||8||Round 1||Lost 8/9 game by 1 in OT|
|2009||Texas||19.65||7||Round 2||Lost to #2 Duke by 5|
|2002||Texas||17.69||6||Sweet 16||Lost to #2 Oregon by 2|
KenPom doesn’t award trophies, at least none that I’m aware of. But it remains an excellent way to judge the overall strength of your basketball team, and make better year-to-year comparisons. Like SP+ in football, we love it for the way it assigns value to every possession, not just every outcome.
Of course, we’d trade all our highest-rated-in-KenPom stuff for more tournament wins, in a heartbeat. And Tennessee’s only team to advance to the Elite Eight in 2010 is an outlier in more ways than one: that group was a six seed, and finished the year at 18.50 in KenPom. That’s eighth-best among Tennessee teams in the last 20 years. But they won a tight 6/11 game in the first round, took advantage of an upset by beating a 14 in round two, and then cashed in on the final possessions in beating #2 Ohio State in the Sweet 16.
The old joke from football abounds here: the best way to win close games is not to play them. But in the NCAA Tournament, that option seems wildly unavailable, and earlier than we think. Unless you get a significant upset in your pod, you’re playing a Quad 1 game in Round 2.
To borrow Josh Heupel’s line about being in a race against ourselves to be as good as we can as fast as we can? In basketball, you want to be as good as you can as late as you can. One of the best ways to advance in March is to benefit from upsets around you. But in terms of what we can control, which is always a good place to start, the best way to advance in the tournament is to be a really good basketball team all year, and at your very best on Selection Sunday.
Five days later, I think this is still the most painful part of the loss to Michigan. Tennessee checked those boxes like never before, and this team was positioned to give the 2019 group a run for its money as our best ever, in KenPom and elsewhere.
But, at least for me, what we can control also comes into play in how these wins and losses are remembered. The Vols didn’t shoot 2-for-18 because they took bad shots. The loss to Michigan is simple to explain, though still not easy to live with. In this way, I don’t think it will resonate as long as some of our other tournament defeats. To me, the hardest losses to live with are the ones when you felt like you were in control of the outcome with the most to gain/lose; there are still ghosts from 2000 North Carolina and 2007 Ohio State floating around in those regards. And Tennessee’s bracket didn’t fall apart around them, a common thread of both 2000 North Carolina and 2018 Loyola Chicago, which to me is still the toughest loss during Barnes’ time here.
I’m less concerned with what some of Barnes’ teams who struggled more in the regular season did in the tournament. Sometimes teams struggle for good reasons and put it together late for even better ones; here too, our 2010 Elite Eight squad qualifies. In KenPom, you’ll note the Kevin Durant squad from 2007 is only 12th-best among Barnes’ teams in the last 21 seasons. Your mileage may vary on how far a team with the 18-year-old version of one of the best human beings to play basketball should’ve gone. But KenPom is helpful in revealing what a team is capable of over the course of the entire year, not just in its final games.
In those final games, Barnes’ very best teams at Tennessee and Texas have met various degrees of heartbreak. The 2019 Vol squad is, by this metric, his best team ever. But when we think back to that Purdue game, I’m still struck by a general absence of what exactly I’d like Tennessee to do differently. Ryan Cline hit 7-of-10 from the arc, and frustrations with officiating at the end had more to do with the rule than the call. In particular, 2019 was an incredible year for college basketball; the Virginia squad that won it all is one of the best teams of the last 20 years in KenPom, and from the Sweet 16 on they won by four, in overtime, one, and in overtime again in the finals.
If you want frustration with officiating and hard-to-live-with losses, check Barnes’ best KenPom team at Texas from 2011. In the 4/5 game with Arizona in Round 2, I’m pretty sure they lose possession on a five-second call that only goes to four. Of Barnes’ two Elite Eight squads, one lost in overtime, and the other to the 2008 Memphis squad we know well. His team that made the Final Four ran into Carmelo Anthony.
What did those Texas teams who advanced that far do differently?
- 2003 Final Four: The Longhorns earned a #1 seed, something that’s also never been done here. From there, their path to the Final Four went through a 16, a 9, a 5 (82-78 over UConn), and then #7 Michigan State was waiting in the Elite Eight. Texas won that game 85-76, then lost to Carmelo and Syracuse in the Final Four.
- 2006 Elite Eight: Playing from #2, they beat a 15, a 10, then #6 West Virginia 74-71, before falling to Big Baby’s LSU squad in overtime.
- 2008 Elite Eight: Again playing from #2, they beat a 15, survived #7 Miami 75-72, then blasted #3 Stanford by 20. #1 Memphis beat them 85-67 in the Elite Eight.
Again, not rocket science: Barnes’ teams that advanced the deepest in the NCAA Tournament were either a #1 or #2 seed. His three to achieve that at Texas all went to the Elite Eight. And his one to achieve that at Tennessee is, in KenPom, his best team ever, a Ryan Cline miss and an overtime away from the Elite Eight itself.
Maybe this is a lot of words just to say, “It’s hard to win in March.” You self-scout and all those things, and you work to make your own luck; Barnes has never been the guy to chalk losses up to misfortune, even when it might be the best available answer.
But I think the best thing Tennessee can do to win in March, it’s already doing: recruit great players, develop them well, build a cohesive unit that plays for each other, and win basketball games. That’s being done here, over the last five seasons, better than it’s ever been done. It’s being done on par with the best it was done at Texas. It didn’t manifest itself against Michigan from the three-point line, and instead went historically in the other direction. And that hurts the way sports will do you sometimes: it’s great, and it hurts. And it’s great.
The big picture, however, gives me as much reason to believe in Tennessee basketball now than ever. And I’m eager to see them chase the mountaintop again next year.