Tennessee basketball: Rick Barnes’ past why Vols not AP preseason top 10

Mar 13, 2022; Tampa, FL, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Rick Barnes reacts during the first half against the Texas A&M Aggies at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 13, 2022; Tampa, FL, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Rick Barnes reacts during the first half against the Texas A&M Aggies at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

There’s no way you could look at the combination of returning talent, last year’s success, recruiting and key additions and not think Tennessee basketball should be a top 10 team entering 2022-23. However, it looks like they’ll have to earn that ranking.

UT came in at No. 11 in the Preseason AP Poll for this year. The Vols are one spot behind another SEC school, the Arkansas Razorbacks, and third among all SEC teams, as the Kentucky Wildcats led everybody, coming in at No. 4.

However, Tennessee basketball returns two starters in Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James, who were second and third on the team in scoring, while a third is back from a season-ending injury, Olivier Nkamhoua. The Vols have five of their top seven rotational players back.

Meanwhile, they added a five-star wing in Julian Phillips and bring in an elite scorer from the transfer portal in Tyreke Key. Two other four-stars in this past year’s class plus the return of 2021 blue-chips Jahmai Mashack and Jonas Aidoo gives this team a deep collection of talent.

Oh, and this was a team that won the SEC Tournament Championship last year. Why, then, are the Vols not in the top 10? Well, the answer is pretty simple. Rick Barnes’ history with such expectations is being used against him.

Barnes has had solid years in the past with high expectations, most notably 2018-2019, when Tennessee basketball was preseason top 10 and spent three weeks ranked No. 1. However, being top 10 because of highly touted newcomers has always been a weakness of Barnes.

Most notably, plugging in superstar freshmen like Phillips with experienced players elsewhere has never worked out for him. Barnes’ thrives off developing talent, which is why three-stars who have played together for multiple years always do better than five-stars under him.

Don’t forget just two years ago, when UT had Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, two five-stars, and was bounced out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Going back to his days with the Texas Longhorns, this issue always plagued him.

In 2014-15, a year after 24 wins and reaching the NCAA Tournament Round of 32, Barnes returned everybody and then added five-star center Myles Turner. The experience combined with the new, elite talent pushed Texas into the preseason top 10. Well, they also lost in the first round of the tournament.

That is ironically what led to Barnes’ firing and got him the job with the Vols. It’s also part of why analysts only cautiously believe in UT this year despite the amount of talent they have back within the program. The history is too questionable.

What many are missing, though, is there are some differences this time around. Barnes showed last year he’s gotten better at this, as he meshed Kennedy Chandler in with the rest of the team, and while they were upset in the NCAA Tournament, they still surpassed expectations.

Also, plugging in a five-star like Turner or a couple of combo guards like Springer and Johnson is one thing. In this case, he has more experience than either of those teams, and he’s plugging in a primary scorer on the wing in Phillips, which the Vols don’t have anyway.

Taking that into account, the situation should be much easier, and Barnes’ veterans are much more elite this year. As a result, Tennessee basketball certainly earned a preseason top 10 ranking. Having to earn it won’t be a big deal, though.

A loaded schedule will give the Vols plenty of chances to earn it. Just in SEC play, they face Kentucky twice, and Arkansas is obviously on the slate. They also face the Auburn Tigers, who come in at No. 15, twice, and the Alabama Crimson Tide, who are No. 20, once.

Next. Projecting Vols' 2022-23 starting lineup. dark

Then there’s the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, which features Barnes’ old team, Texas, who is one spot behind them, and they visit the Arizona Wildcats, who are No. 17. The Battle 4 Atlantis involves a potential matchup with the No. 4 ranked Kansas Jayhawks.