Funny thing about Rick Barnes’ disregard for coach-of-the-year conversation. He didn’t know anything about it and wasn’t interested in learning.
How could that be, you ask?
Wrong award. Doesn’t fit the fine print.
Atlanta Tipoff Club has Rick on the 10-man look-see list for the Naismith Trophy. Rick’s UT contract calls for a $50,000 bonus if he wins the Associated Press coach-of-the-year award.
Even if he doesn’t win the trophy or the cash, Barnes has done one heck of a job with the Volunteers. He thinks the proverbial brass ring is within reach. Maybe, just maybe, his players see and believe and will keep jumping.
Two years ago, I thought Tennessee was Barnes’ retirement plan. He was not recruiting to my satisfaction. He was home most every night. He was not in the switchblade tournaments, trying to survive in pursuit of five-star talent we now find was for sale.
It seemed Barnes was satisfied to do the best he could with what he had or what his assistants could catch. The results were middle of the road. I missed Bruce Pearl.
These basketball Volunteers have won 21 games, several more than expected. They have not achieved championship consistency. We almost always anticipate an exciting show. Often, we get it. Sometimes the team is extra efficient – and sometimes not.
This is maddening for the coach, who is certainly not coasting, not at all. This team might make a good man old before his time. He knows all the nicknames, hometowns, favorite music, even grandmothers, but he never knows what he will get on the floor.
Case in point: Best player Grant Williams missed seven of eight and settled for a less than spectacular five points at Georgia. He ate the Florida Gators alive, no cookout, no barbecue sauce, 23 points! He goes to Ole Miss and gets five points and four fouls.
We all know shooting accuracy fluctuates everywhere the game is played. There are times when shots simply refuse to drop. Once I checked at halftime, at Kentucky as I recall, to be sure there was no lid on the basket. You can never tell what those Wildcats might do. My biggest catch was a UK manager hiding behind the bleachers, spying on a Tennessee pre-game practice. He was taking notes but said he was looking for lost car keys.
Alas, I digress.
Tennessee’s current up and down intensity is mostly in the mind. These Vols obviously love the game. Right now, basketball is who they are. When they come out with a lethargic look or when they respond poorly to challenges, when they are beaten badly on the boards, it is because they are not ready to rumble.
There are times when concentration wanes. You see it. There is little logic in passing the ball around the perimeter and finally launching a contested three when there was a way to play inside out. That’s when the coach wonders if his players heard the scouting report.
No excuse for defensive effort coming and going. The Vols are blessed with speed and quickness. They can be smothering. They can win with defense even when the offense is on holiday. We have seen them overplay passing lanes and squeeze all the fun out of playing point guard.
Rick Barnes deals with it differently. He does a lot of coaching in public. He describes player deficiencies out loud, in bold words other coaches might whisper in private meetings. If you ask him, he’ll tell you why Kyle Alexander is sometimes good and sometimes not.
Rick Barnes is different in another way. His basketball lifetime is unscarred by NCAA penalties. I would be stunned –absolutely stunned – if he is ever linked to the current FBI investigation.
He has done what he has done the right way. He’ll end up in the Hall of Fame without an asterisk. He may not be national coach of this year but he is mine. I don’t miss Bruce nearly as much as I did.
Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org