This Tennessee team is Rick Barnes’s best chance and biggest challenge

Rick Barnes has made the NCAA Tournament 27 times but has only advanced to the Final Four once, over 20 years ago. With his best player since Kevin Durant, Barnes has a chance to cement his legacy as an all-time great, or an all-time goat.

Tennessee Volunteers head coach Rick Barnes
Tennessee Volunteers head coach Rick Barnes / Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
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On Wednesday night in Columbia, the Tennessee Volunteers emerged from their end-of-season SEC gauntlet victorious, beating South Carolina 66-59 and winning the regular season conference title outright. 

The Vols haven’t lost since February 10th and to clinch the title, Rick Barnes’s team beat No. 11 Auburn, No. 14 Alabama, and the No. 17 Gamecocks in succession. Regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s season finale against No. 15 Kentucky, Tennessee 24-6 (14-3) will head to Nashville as the top seed in the SEC Tournament and with a target on its back. 

Going into Wednesday night’s matchup, a five-way tie for the conference title was still in play and Tennessee closed its season against the other four contenders. Before this stretch, there was skepticism surrounding the Vols, had Rick Barnes, who has yet to get past the Sweet 16 in his eight seasons in Rocky Top, finally put together a Final Four-caliber team? 

Well, if this was a house of cards, a second-half deficit to Auburn, a rivalry game in Tuscaloosa, or senior night in Columbia would have certainly knocked it down. But this group has the rock-solid foundation of a team that went 25-11 last year before Zakai Zeigler’s ACL injury derailed their title hopes and in the offseason, added the no-doubt SEC Player of the Year in Dalton Knecht. 

On the ESPN broadcast, analyst Jimmy Dykes said that Tennessee doesn’t recruit, it evaluates, and Barnes’s staff nailed their evaluation of the Northern Colorado transfer, who is a clear second to Zach Edey in the race for National Player of the Year. Knecht finished with 26 points against South Carolina, routinely torching the Gamecocks on out-of-bounds plays, a slight flex of Rick Barnes’s muscles against Lamont Paris’s upstart group. 

Knecht is second in the SEC in scoring at 20.6 points a game, while grabbing 4.9 rebounds, shooting 47.8% from the field and over 40% from three, all while playing quality defense. That delicious combination is nicely wrapped in a lethal 6-foot-6 204-pound frame. 

While Tennessee’s final regular season matchup has almost no bearing on its season, the SEC Tournament will determine its seed in the big dance, and the type of momentum that it carries into it. 

Once before, Rick Barnes coached the Vols to a regular season title in the SEC, but his 2017-18 team led by Grant Williams, who was in attendance on Wednesday night, and Admiral Schofield, was nowhere near the caliber of Barnes’s 2023-24 rendition. 

Over his 37 years as a Division I head coach, Barnes has placed himself in the upper echelon of the sport, but with the 69-year-old’s career much closer to the 18th green than the 1st tee box, he’s more often been lampooned for his lack of success in March than praised for his 803 career victories (14th all-time). Between Providence, Clemson, Texas, and Tennessee, Barnes has taken his team to the NCAA Tournament 27 times and this year will be the 28th. Yet he’s only made it past the Sweet 16 three times and his only Final Four appearance came over 20 years ago, in 2003 at Texas. 

So, he’s in familiar territory, heading into March with high hopes, but he’s searching for a result that has eluded him, one that would cement him alongside the Coach Ks, Tom Izzos, and Roy Williams of the college basketball world, men he likely considers his peers. 

The best since Durant

The difference is; the hopes in Knoxville have never been quite as high as this. Since getting to Tennessee, Barnes has never entered March with arguably the best player in the country, as he has with Knecht. The last time he did that anywhere, was in 2007 at Texas when Kevin Durant, another lengthy wing scorer, averaged 25.8 points and 11.1 boards for the No. 4 seed Longhorns. 

Even with three other future NBA players, D.J. Augustin, Damion James, and Dexter Pittman surrounding Durant, Barnes couldn’t get that team out of the first weekend. Since then, the reputation as a coach who disappoints in the big dance has been impossible to shake. 

Knecht isn’t on the level of Durant, a generational basketball talent, but those players don’t play college basketball anymore, so Knecht is the best facsimile we’re going to get (until Cooper Flagg shows up at Duke next season). That’s why Barnes will cement his legacy with this team for better or for worse. 

Tennessee will enter March top 5 in the Net Rankings and Kenpom, and is currently one of just seven teams to rank inside the top 25 for Kenpom-adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, the mark of a true national title contender. The Vols are 8-5 in Quad 1 games, 8-3 on the road, and are 9-1 in their last 10 which includes wins over South Carolina and Texas A&M, avenging their two most recent losses. 

Most importantly, when Knecht is knocking down shots and Zeigler is operating the pick-and-roll, the Vols more than pass the eye test. By every conceivable metric, Rick Barnes has himself a team capable of winning it all. At this point, Barnes himself is the team’s biggest question mark. 

His contract extends through the 2027-28 season and there’d be no reason for a football school like Tennessee to get a wandering eye, but the rest of the college basketball world will, looking for the next big thing and dismissing Barnes as just another guy who could never get over the hump. 

If there’s enough gas left in his tank, then Barnes has the opportunity to end his career as one of the five winningest coaches in college basketball history (No. 5 Dean Smith: 879) but he’ll never be viewed in that light without a ring. This is his best chance to get one but with the legacy of a 37-year career on his shoulders and the demons of March Madness past to conquer, it’ll be his biggest challenge.

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