PHOENIX – Minutes after Rick Barnes experienced perhaps his signature moment since arriving in Knoxville, an upset over top-ranked Gonzaga in the desert, he had little interest in revisiting what now seems like ancient history: the 17-year stint in Austin, Texas in which he had 16 NCAA tournament appearances.
There were those who felt Barnes had lost his edge, that he wasn’t recruiting with the same vigor that he had while at Providence, Clemson and earlier at Texas when he was able to land highly recruited guys like Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin. He was ultimately jettisoned because he set the bar high with the Final Four appearance in 2003, Elite Eights in 2006 and 2008, and wasn’t able to sustain it by getting past the first weekend of the NCAA tourney in his final seven seasons.
That’s all in the past.
The present has the 64-year-old Barnes relevant again nationally, reviving his career when many felt as though the stop in Knoxville could just be a way to pick up one final payday before riding into the sunset.
Tennessee improved to 7-1 overall on Sunday, with the one loss coming against Kansas in New York earlier in the month. The Vols are ranked seventh in the nation while Texas is struggling and could be headed for its second non-NCAA tourney appearance in four years.
Then-Longhorns athletic director Steve Patterson – whose tenure lasted less than two years — replaced Barnes with wunderkind Shaka Smart. The former VCU head coach is 55-52 overall in his three-plus seasons with two NCAA tournament appearances, but no tourney wins. The Longhorns are currently on a three-game losing streak – with setbacks coming against Radford and VCU.
“I’m happy,” Barnes said. “I really love it here and the fans in Knoxville are really passionate and love basketball.”
It was a disaster when Barnes got to Knoxville. Bruce Pearl was fired in 2011 and given a show-cause penalty, Cuonzo Martin left for the Cal job after three forgettable seasons and the Donnie Tyndall era lasted just one year following his firing stemming from transgressions committed while he was the coach at Southern Miss.
Barnes had a name and hadn’t had any NCAA issues. But no one expected much, especially with what he inherited. Maybe an NCAA tournament appearance or two with a couple of NIT seasons.
The Vols won 15 games in his first season, went 16-16 in his second and shocked everyone by going 26-9 and claiming a share of the SEC regular-season title last season.
And he had just about everyone back this season – including Player of the Year candidate Grant Williams and senior Admiral Schofield.
There have been signature wins, but none comparable to the one Sunday against Gonzaga. In all his years of coaching, Barnes had never beaten a No. 1 team until the Vols closed out Gonzaga with Williams sitting on the bench for the final 2:30 after fouling out. Schofield hit a flurry of big shots – including a couple of 3s with Williams on the bench – to finish with 30 points and the semi-improbable victory.
A year ago, Tennessee came up short in games against Villanova and North Carolina. Just a couple weeks ago, the Vols were unable to close it out against the Jayhawks and lost their composure late at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“In reality, it’s a big statement,” Schofield said. “We’re not going to act like it’s not a big deal. For us, it’s not. We’re only playing in December. We’re not playing for championships in December, you’re playing for championships in March.”
Barnes scoffs at the notion that he doesn’t have talent when one reporter questioned him about his two best players being three-star recruits.
“We have more talent than people think,” Barnes said.
Williams ultimately opted for Tennessee over Yale and while Schofield had other high-major offers, he wasn’t highly coveted when he initially committed to Tyndall and his staff. Now, they are two of the best players in the SEC and they have been the key to a basketball resurgence in Knoxville.
“It just goes to show what a team can do when it comes together with chemistry,” said former Vols and current Clippers star Tobias Harris, who was in Phoenix watching prior to his game on Monday. “It’s about chemistry, work ethic and how hard they play. I was motivated just watching them play today.”