Column: Rick Barnes is back

FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2018, file photo, Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes yells to his player in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas A&M in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Crystal LoGiudice, File)

Albeit by injury-proxy, legendary UConn head coach Jim Calhoun will have produced two (Andre Drummond and Kemba Walker) of the 24 participants in this weekend’s NBA All-Star game. Infamous aggregator of talent John Calipari will have as well (Anthony Davis and Karl Anthony-Towns). The third coach, who in considered less illustrious by many, is former Texas and current Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes (LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant.)

Barnes knows talent. Along with top five selections Durant and Aldridge, Barnes coached current NBA players Tristian Thompson, PJ Tucker, Cory Joseph, Avery Bradley and DJ Augustin at Texas. Chris Mihm and Maurice Evans were longtime NBA veterans. Jordan Hamilton, Dexter Pittman and Royal Ivey all received extended cups of coffee. Thompson was a top-five pick, Augustin and Mihm top ten and Bradley, Hamilton and Joseph were first rounders.

Excluded from the list? TJ Ford, who in 2003 led Barnes and the Longhorns to his only Final Four en route to winning the Naismith National Player of the Year. The Naismith NPOY was also grabbed by Durant in 2009.

Barnes has seen some talent. But talent couldn’t save his job at Texas. Tired of poor NCAA Tournament performance (21-22 in his career) and a stagnating program, the administration moved on after 17 seasons.

He was quickly given new life at Tennessee.  His third year in he has things rolling in Knoxville. The Vols are 18th in the latest AP Poll. Before their Feb. 13 contest against South Carolina, in KenPom, they are 11th and prior to a thrashing at the hands of Alabama were in the predictive analytics site’s top 10.

According to ESPN’s 538, Tennessee, who has one NCAA tournament appearance in six seasons as a “First Four” team in 2014, even has a sneaky chance for a No. 1 seed. As the piece mentions, this was a team projected to finish 13th in the SEC.

Yet they have thrived. ESPN’s BPI denotes them playing the nation’s fourth hardest schedule up to this point, and on KenPom they’re second. They are a 36th in Adjusted Offense on KenPom, but a far more impressive fifth on defense, despite playing Villanova’s top ranked offense in a loss earlier this year.

A top defense is a common indicator for Barnes’ teams. Barnes, who missed the NCAA tournament one time at Texas, had never had a defense outside the top 75, going back to 2002 when KenPom statistics end. The 2003 Final Four group was third. Two years ago, in his debut season in Tennessee they were 150th, and last year 55th. Make of that what you will. A strong rim protection, the nation’s No. 25 Block Percentage and creating mistakes (No. 36 in Opponent Turnover Percentage) have led the way.

The offense has been typically strong as well. From 2002 to 2011 they were always, save for Durant's 2009 team, Top 25 in Adjusted Offense, including several years in the top 10. Like Calhoun, old Barnes’ teams were elite offensive rebounders, annually among the nation’s best. Barnes’ first year they were 93rd, a major aberration in his career. This year they’re 46th.

Despite this being an era where Memphis high schools are churning out more talent than just about anywhere, Barnes has done this without a commodity he is synonymous with: stars. The current roster has zero top 100 recruits. There are standouts: 6’7” sophomore forward Grant Williams is averaging 15.9 points per game, 6 rebounds per game and 1.7 blocks per game. 6’5” Admiral Schofield, a junior forward, is averaging 12 and six as well, along with 41 percent shooting from the three on 4.4 attempts. Neither came into the seasons with such lofty expectations; nor made a pre-season All-SEC team. Now, Williams assuredly will, and depending on how Tennessee finishes Schofield has a chance.

That finish should be strong. They have no Top 25 opponents remaining and KenPom projects them to win out. Tournament time has been an Achilles heel. Barnes and this team, as well as his eventual overall tenure, will be judged on their postseason performance. The pieces are there and right now, Barnes has them fitting pretty well.

By the way, back in Austin, Texas, Shaka Smart and the Longhorns have lost four of the last five, are 44th in KenPom and missed the NCAA Tournament last season. Barnes’ new shade of orange isn’t the only thing brighter: so is his program.


Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.barresi@uconn.edu.