Tennessee basketball: Rules changes behind best year for Vols, Rick Barnes

COLUMBIA, MISSOURI - JANUARY 08: Head coach Rick Barnes of the Tennessee Volunteers directs his team against the Missouri Tigers in the second half at Mizzou Arena on January 08, 2019 in Columbia, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, MISSOURI - JANUARY 08: Head coach Rick Barnes of the Tennessee Volunteers directs his team against the Missouri Tigers in the second half at Mizzou Arena on January 08, 2019 in Columbia, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

Tennessee basketball’s 2018-2019 season is on track to be the most successful one ever for the Volunteers or Rick Barnes. Did NCAA rules changes help that?

With Tennessee basketball’s 92-70 victory Tuesday over the South Carolina Gamecocks, the No. 1 ranked Vols tied a school record for 15 straight wins. But in the post game, Rick Barnes talked about a rule that kept him from being able to call timeout when he wanted to to get Lamonte Turner out of the game.

Turner, at the time, had three fouls. But coaches can’t call timeouts on live ball plays, which is a rule change that went into effect to start the 2015 season. Barnes called it a “really tough rule” and used Tuesday as an example. Here’s the thing, though: These rule changes could be a huge reason for the resurgence that Barnes and the Vols are enjoying.

Back in 2005, when Tennessee basketball hired Bruce Pearl, his signature victory early on was a dominating win at the Texas Longhorns. That was the splash game that put him on the map, and a Top 25 finish that year had fans immediately on board. Two years later, he had the Vols at No. 1 for the first time in history. Then, two years after that, he took them to their first Elite Eight. Even as he was fired, Nobody in the world would have taken Barnes over Pearl at that time as a head coach despite Barnes’s consistent success.

Fast-forward to now, though, and Barnes has taken the same Vols program to heights that Pearl never did. He did it faster than Pearl rebuilt the Auburn Tigers, and Pearl had a one-year head start at Auburn while Barnes inherited a bigger mess. It’s crazy to think about now considering everybody in Knoxville wanted Pearl rehired in 2014.

The Vols have had two straight weeks at No. 1, a first for them in history. They have a 15-game winning streak, tied for their longest ever. More than that, though, these are firsts for Barnes. He had only been No. 1 for two weeks his entire career before this year, and the Vols’ win over the Gonzaga Bulldogs was his first over a No. 1 team in his career.

So what’s with this new success? How else could Barnes, after 17 years with the Texas Longhorns, potentially be in the midst of his greatest season ever with a team built around a bunch of three-stars? And how could the Vols have never reached this level of success under Pearl, Ray Mears, or anybody in between?

Well, when the Vols hired Barnes in 2015, the NCAA put in a collection of new rules that were going to help what he does specifically. They were updated in 2016, which you can read about here on CBS, but the new rules are largely still in place. These two years of changes changed everything.

The first was the 30-second shot clock. With an inside-out game and a collection of three-point shooters, that hurt other offensive systems way more than it hurt Barnes’s, who has spent the last few years running an NBA version of the flex offense or the 4-out-1-in scissor offense.

Then there’s the live ball timeout that he hit on Tuesday. Again, though, this doesn’t hurt a team like Tennessee basketball. Coaches abused the live ball timeout during a scuffle to maintain possession. Barnes has the advantage now because his players are bound to win 50-50 balls given their length, athleticism and overall toughness that other teams can’t match. They win them all the time.

The rules changes to the post game, though, were among the biggest. In 2016, new NCAA rules don’t allow defenders to swipe the ball away from a player in the post by going under his arm. They have also limited the amount of charges you can call in the paint, which truly helps undersized big men like Grant Williams who want to use their physicality. And, finally, offensive players are allowed to make a move now before defenders can jam them.

For a guy like Barnes who wants to run fluid offenses, this is all huge. But, despite his up-tempo style of play, it actually doesn’t hurt his defense at all, whose focus in a press is guarding the passing lanes and preaches versatility in the half-court defense, willing to reverberate to a zone for entire games if necessary.

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Meanwhile, other coaches who would seem to run similar styles are hurting by these new rules. Bruce Pearl, who has built up the Auburn Tigers again and is doing a very good job there, is not having the success many people thought he would simply because of these issues. He lamented the rules changes two years ago, when he was still trying to get Auburn to its first NCAA Tournament.

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What changed for him? Well, his 1-2-2 press that made him famous in major college basketball was the basis for his offense too. It was about getting the turnovers and scoring quickly in transition. The new rules changes, though, of allowing offensive players to make a move really hampers how Pearl likes to employ his press. And it makes it harder to get turnovers.

On top of that, a misnomer about Pearl’s up-tempo style is that he likes to score quickly on offense. But his version of the flex, unlike what Barnes ran back at Texas, is more similar to Gary Williams and was developed by Tom Davis. That uses fewer pick and rolls and has a lot more perimeter passing waiting for the right mismatch, which meant milking more of that 35-second shot clock. So, despite his fast-pace style, the shortened shot clock hurt his half-court sets.

Pearl’s biggest advantages when he arrived on Rocky Top in 2005 were the old rules and the fact that nobody in the SEC was really playing up-tempo. A decade later, he changed the conference enough that everybody was doing it. So that took one advantage. Those two new rule changes took away more.

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Meanwhile, Barnes took the Tennessee basketball job and slowly went to work building it his way. With rule changes that require more coaching on defense, winning hustle plays and reward versatile offenses, Barnes was able to build a complete team that he never had at Texas. Once he got the experience and depth needed, there was no stopping this team. And that explains why nobody on Rocky Top is pining for Pearl back anymore.