When Tennessee fans welcomed Rick Barnes to Knoxville three years ago, hopes were high that the veteran head coach could pull the program out of a tailspin brought on by having three head coaches in a span of five years.
With Tennessee headed to the SEC Tournament in St. Louis with a share of the regular season conference title in its back pocket, it’s safe to say that Barnes has more than righted the ship.
In fact, the program looks to be in better shape, on firmer footing and with a brighter future than at any time in the past decade.
It’s a good time to be a Tennessee basketball fan. Something virtually no one has said in recent years.
The funny thing? It hasn’t happened the way many people envisioned when Barnes stepped to the podium for the first time as the Vols’ head coach.
When it was announced that Barnes was taking over the Vols program after a 17-year run at Texas, visions of 5-star prospects and high profile one-and-done recruits danced in the minds of Tennessee fans.
After all, Barnes had been in the vanguard of college coaches in the first decade of the 2000’s when it came to recruiting some of the biggest high school names in the country, who after abbreviated college careers went on to NBA stardom.
That Texas group was headlined by the likes T.J. Ford, Lamarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant, but included seven total lottery picks and 12 first-round selections. In fact, Barnes recruited and coached a one-and-done lottery pick in Myles Turner during his final season at Texas.
Naturally, Tennessee fans assumed Barnes would follow the same blueprint once he had things up and running in Knoxville.
Only he didn’t follow that blueprint.
Some fans were perplexed by his recruiting approach in Knoxville during his first two seasons on the job. The Vols didn’t appear to be major factors for any big names in the recruiting game over that span and failed to even sign a single top-100 prospect — leading many to question Barnes’ strategy when it came to evaluating and pursuing talent.
It’s a vast understatement to say that few are questioning that approach now.
To associate head coach Rob Lanier, who has spent nine years working alongside Barnes, it’s funny that anyone ever questioned a head coach who arrived in Knoxville having led 22 teams into the NCAA tournament over the course of his career.
From Lanier’s perspective, what Barnes has done in Knoxville lines up perfectly with what the head coach has done in the past. Just the more distant past than Austin.
Outsiders look at Barnes assembling a team comprised mostly of players that no one else wanted as him going off script from his approach at Texas. To Lanier, it looks like a coach going back his roots.
“I think people don’t look at coach Barnes’ whole body of work sometimes. Think about it. When he got to Providence as a young coach in the Big East, there was John Thompson, Jim Calhoun, Jim Boehiem, Louie Carnessecca, Rollie Massamino, Hall of Famers. Those were the head coaches he was competing against. So he had a chip on his shoulder. He wasn’t going to get the same kind of guys they were signing. But he elevated the program with a blue-collar approach,” Lanier said, drawing some parallels between Barnes’ past and what is currently happening on the ground in Knoxville.
“Then he goes to Clemson, and they were coming off probation and he’s in a league with Dean Smith, Gary Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and Bobby Cremins. So there he is again in the same situation.”
As history shows, Barnes turned both Providence and Clemson into winners. He won a Big East tournament with the Friars and made three NCAA tournaments in five years. Then, at Clemson, in a cut throat ACC at what was (and is) the historically worst program in the league, he made a school-record three straight NCAA Tournaments with the Tigers.
When he got to Texas, he inherited a Longhorn program that had enjoyed some success under Tom Penders but had never really been any kind of a consistent power.
In 1999, his first squad at Texas bore quite a bit of resemblance to his early Tennessee teams, featuring no stars and a blue-collar flair.
That changed once Barnes was able to add eventual college National Player of the Year T.J. Ford, but as Lanier recounts, it wasn’t as though Barnes landed in Austin, rolled out the red carpet and started marching 5-star recruits into the program.
“What happened was, at Texas we had a group like this (one at Tennessee). Royal Ivey, James Thomas, Brandon Mouton, kids that I recruited, and at the time we were trying to recruit T.J. Ford and he wasn’t convinced that we had good enough players for him to play with,” Lanier recounts of how Barnes’ reputation changed from that of a guy who got it done with under-the-radar recruits to someone who consistently landed NBA talent.
“He (Ford) hadn’t heard of any of those guys, it was a group much like this one. He watched us play and he saw what coach was about. When T.J. got on board it changed everything.
“All the other stuff — Lamarcus Aldridge, Daniel Gibson, that happened because of T.J. But Rick had a pretty long and successful career before that. So this has been kind of Rick Barnes going back to his roots.”
Recent events have provided some strong evidence that Barnes’ approach is working just fine.
His rag-tag collection of under the radar prospects just nailed down a share of the league title for the first time in a decade and only the 10th time in the history of Tennessee's program, earning Barnes SEC Coach of the Year honors from his peers.
One of those formerly lightly-regarded recruits, sophomore Grant Williams, just took home some hardware as the SEC Player of the Year. If he hadn’t landed at Tennessee, he’d probably be the best player in the Ivy League right now.
Admiral Schofield was just named to the All-SEC second team and may be playing as well as anyone in the conference at the moment. No Big Ten schools were throwing up road blocks to try and keep him from heading South from Zion, Ill. to Knoxville to play his college basketball.
The performances those two individuals have turned in this season speak volumes about the ability of Barnes and this staff to evaluate talent. Beyond that though, the mental make-up of not just Williams and Schofield, but every player on a roster that’s made up entirely of Barnes’ recruits, sheds a bright shining light on how much effort this staff puts into evaluating character alongside of talent.
Lanier is quick to point out that talent still trumps everything in the recruiting process. That’s the baseline starting point. After that though, for this staff, character is something that this staff takes a long and hard look at before they decide to go 'all in’ on a prospect’s recruitment.
“You immediately look at the talent and then you find out about the character after the fact. It’s just like when you met your wife. You thought she was hot at first, then you got to know her and made a connection,” Lanier jokes, illustrating his point.
In all seriousness though, one of the most impressive elements of this team is the obvious chemistry this group has with one another.
You hear that term a lot, especially at this time of year, but it’s very real part of this Tennessee team and without question a key to their success.
As evidence of that chemistry, look no further than how players' minutes can swing so wildly from one game to the next. Or consider that Lamonte Turner is the third-leading scorer on the team and would be a key cog for many teams around this league, but didn’t start a single game for the Vols this year.
Look to the Vols’ bench in any game and you’ll see a group of guys pulling hard for one another, taking pleasure in one another’s success, and above all, a group for whose main goal is winning.
That’s not an accident.
It’s an environment this staff has cultivated by targeting players they feel can handle the demands of playing for Barnes and then enhanced once those kids get on campus and get exposed to the culture that Barnes and his staff have fostered.
“The chemistry that you see on this team is real. They all have one thing in common, they all agree that coach is a maniac, so that brings them closer together. That’s an interesting dynamic, how that comes to be. But really, they’re all really good kids,” Lanier said of the bond that exists in the Vols’ locker room.
“I think that kind of chemistry gives you a chance to win. It starts there, it gives you a chance. Unless you’re just super talented, then you can have chaos and still be better than most teams, but you can’t win championships that way.”
Based off the success this team has enjoyed this season, should fans expect Barnes’ philosophy on recruiting to shift, or will the Vols always be out there, turning over every rock, searching for the next Williams, a two-star player who they can turn into a conference player of the year?
Or, with the program’s profile rising considerably and Barnes’ coaching reputation as high nationally as it is, will the staff turn their collective eye towards bigger names and brighter stars on the recruiting trail?
That’s already happening to some extent if you’ve been paying attention to the Vols’ efforts, but Lanier makes it clear that the core philosophy isn’t going to change.
The Vols are going to target big-time talent, but they’re not going to sacrifice what they’ve built here in three years just in order to add some talent to the equation.
Lanier shed some light on that with a story from his time at Florida with Billy Donovan. The former Gators’ head coach had some wild success at Florida as a recruiter, but his biggest success on the court — back-to-back national titles— didn’t come with a single one-and-done player on the roster.
“Billy Donovan actually made the comment to our staff that we wanted to get as many second round picks as we can. Let’s get some guys who can be pros, but will be here for a little while, and then let’s try to add a Bradley Beal to that team,” Lanier said of his opinion on recruiting.
“We may not have one-and-done guys, but we have talent. Our goal is to get older, to create a cycle in our program that maybe we can recruit a one-and-done guy without having it set our program back after that one year. We always want to have upper-classmen in our program.”
For Tennessee fans, that last line should remind them that as good as this season has been, even brighter days could well lie ahead. If you take a step back, that may be the best part of what's becoming an increasingly good story, the love affair between Barnes and a Tennessee fanbase that has a strong track record of supporting good basketball when they have a coach that will provide it.
Lanier sees the connection and he sees Barnes' current situation as almost a storybook scenario for the head coach to land in after a messy departure from Texas after 17 seasons.
"The reality is that 22 wins at Texas in his last year, losing in the first round of the tournament after going to 16 out of 17 NCAA tournaments, with a new AD at that point it just wasn’t good enough anymore. It was time for a change. Thankfully, it worked out great. To me, there are few coaches in the country that fit the place he’s at better than Rick Barnes fits here," Lanier observed.
"Its a two way street. I’m happy for him for that because he’s at a stage in his career where he deserves that and I’m happy for the people that support this program because they got their guy."
And again, the best part about the story for fans is that it's still being written, and it looks like it could be an exciting read.
This offseason, Tennessee loses no one off this year’s title team aside from back-up point guard James Daniel.
Furthermore, given the player development we’ve seen in three years under Barnes it seems safe to assume that young players on the roster like Yves Pons, Derrick Walker, Jalen Johnson, etc. are going to be better versions of themselves next year and beyond while veterans continue to add to their game as well.
The Vols are about to play in an SEC Tournament as a No. 2 seed that they haven’t won in almost 40 years. They’re about to head into the NCAA Tournament as a likely top-3 seed. They’re doing it with a roster that people who cover this league looked at back in October and deemed the second-worst team in the league.
For most observers, calling the situation ‘surprising’ doesn’t quite sum it up.
Asked if he’s stunned by how things have played out though, Lanier looks like he’s surprised that the questioner is surprised, and then poses an interesting question to explain why.
“I didn’t think of in terms of winning an SEC championship in the third year, but I knew we could be successful. (Because) I’ve been around him,” Lanier said when asked if he thought the Vols could be this successful under Barnes this quickly.
“I mean think about this. Say you take his whole body of work and all of those years, say he had only been at Tennessee, he wasn’t at Clemson or Providence or Texas. Say that everything he had done as a coach he had done at Tennessee. Who would he be to this place? He’d be the best coach ever here.
“That’s who our coach is, so why would I think anything else?”
After three years, it’s an opinion that many Tennessee fans are starting to share.