Tennessee basketball: Is this Rick Barnes’ best coaching job with Vols?

Despite being just 14-10 and 6-5 in the SEC, Tennessee basketball head coach Rick Barnes may be doing his best job ever with the Volunteers.

Starting the season, Tennessee basketball had to replace its three leading scorers from last year and its top center. Then the Vols lost out on an eligibility waiver request for their only incoming center to replace Kyle Alexander, Uros Plavsic.

Barnes’ plan was to rely on the leadership of Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden, hope Yves Pons and John Fulkerson took major steps forward and then rely on the raw talent of five-star freshman Josiah-Jordan James. For the early part of the year, it worked.

But Turner, bothered by a shoulder injury, struggled. UT lost two games in December, and Turner then decided to have season-ending shoulder surgery. As a result, Barnes had to turn to a freshman from Europe, Santiago Vescovi, to start running the show at point guard.

Things were looking up again, and they got even better as the NCAA reversed course on Plavsic, granting him eligibility. But immediately after that, it was revealed that James, his freshman phenom, was battling a hip injury, and he has missed multiple games.

So Barnes had to replace his top four producers, he lost his top returning producer for the year, and his one star freshman is also out. Given all those facts, Tennessee basketball being 14-10, 6-5 in the SEC and having a chance to make a run at the NCAA Tournament is beyond impressive.

The Vols have won two of their last three, all without James. One was a crucial road win at the Alabama Crimson Tide, and their other one was a home win by over 20 against the Arkansas Razorbacks. Now yes, they lost to the Kentucky Wildcats by 13 at home, but again, they don’t have James playing.

Even with that loss, Barnes may be in the midst of his best coaching job ever with the Vols. Sure, being picked to finish No. 13 in the SEC and then sharing the league title two years ago was impressive. But that pick was an indictment against those who made it. Barnes had built a program of guys with experience at that point, and he was able to take advantage.

Rocky Top reaching No. 1 in 2018-2019 had the same story. Again, that was more about the great job Barnes did over a four-year period building up a program, not necessarily what he did during that year specifically.

This year was always going to require a quick fix to get back to the NCAA Tournament, though. So keeping the Vols in the hunt given everything they have gone through is an impressive thing that he has done this year specifically.

One thing that stands out is how Barnes has switched up his rotation to adapt to his opponents amidst these injuries. For two games without James, he went big, starting Plavsic at Center, Fulkerson at power forward, Pons on the wing and then Bowden and Vescovi at guard. But he mixed things up, benching Plavsic and adding Jalen Johnson as an extra guard, against Arkansas.

Clearly doing whatever it takes to win, Barnes is adjusting on the fly, finding ways to stay afloat into February of the 2019-2020 season. And now he’s got a brutal road ahead of him to really test just how good of a job he’s done.

All three opponents are top 50 RPI teams. Arkansas is a top 30 RPI team. UT’s schedule strength is going up to the point that it’s projected to finish No. 4 nationally by the end of the year, as they still have to face the Auburn Tigers twice, Kentucky and Arkansas on the road and the Florida Gators. This weekend, they visit the South Carolina Gamecocks.

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If Tennessee basketball makes it into the NCAA Tournament or even just has a winning record with that road given what Barnes did, he should be coach of the year. Nobody should even question it. At the very least, it should be an exciting stretch run for the Vols.