Tennessee was a baseball school on Saturday. Grand-slamming Vanderbilt lifts the spirit.
Today, Tennessee is a basketball school, for the next few minutes as you read this, and maybe for the next few years during football reconstruction.
Coach Rick Barnes, an old dog, has learned new tricks.
Throughout his hall-of-fame career, he has won with organization, development, consistency and execution. Last season, he switched to one-and-dones.
He and his all-star staff assembled what I thought might be the most talent in Tennessee history. Nothing came of it. The great young guards improved some and took over. Others watched. The team ran very few plays. It was individualistic or bombs away.
The Volunteers turned into the disappointments-of-the-year.
Barnes fretted and fussed (he did not cuss). He discovered something I thought he already knew. You can’t win in the big leagues without an inside game.
If last season was a surprise, what has happened since is a bigger surprise. Barnes retooled his roster. He conceded a misevaluation or two – or four – and encouraged some pretty good people to go away and start over elsewhere.
With boosts and blessings from Barnes, two assistant coaches got head jobs. Staffers moving up is good for the head coach’s reputation.
The net result of all those changes is a very new look.
There were a few seconds of consternation. Kim English had been the primary recruiter of Kennedy Chandler, No. 2 point guard in the country. The Memphis prep star signed with Tennessee in November.
English has a new job at George Mason. What if Chandler …
“I would like Vol Nation to join me in sending huge congratulations to Coach English …” Chandler said.
“My family and I grew extremely close to him during the recruiting process, and wish him nothing but the best. He will be missed. Nonetheless, I am still excited as ever to put on the Vols jersey and get to work for the legendary Coach Barnes. See you soon.”
Everybody took a deep breath.
Out on the hustings, Tennessee associate head coach Mike Schwartz recruited four-star Jahmai Mashack from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
Schwartz again tapped his Pons connections for help in getting the physically gifted 6-6 Quentin Diboundje, a youngster good enough to play on the French national under-21 team. He is from Montpellier. He is currently enrolled at Montverde Academy in Florida.
Auburn’s 6-6 shooting guard Justin Powell, from Prospect, Ky., saw the same opening Diboundje noticed, that Vol freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer were headed to the NBA. Justin decided to transfer to Tennessee. What a coincidence!
Barnes took advantage of the coaching change at Marquette. He hired former associate head coach Justin Gainey. Former Marquette commitment Jonas Aidoo might have been part of the package.
Aidoo is within a whisker of seven feet tall. He was the No. 1 prep prospect in North Carolina, one of the top centers in the country. Tennessee tried to recruit him before he tilted to the north.
Barnes pulled another really big rabbit out of a hat.
Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, 6-9 and 225, the No. 1 power forward in the country, is from Clarksville. He played a season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. He moved to Scotland Performance Institute in Chambersburg, Pa.
Most colleges that have rectangular courts with lines on the floor, backboards and hoops expressed an interest in his talent. He is a one-and-done type, with length, strength and body density.
Kentucky sort of thought he was a Wildcat-to-be. He is a cousin of former UK star Alex Poythress. Brandon had said on numerous occasions that Kentucky was his dream school growing up.
Kansas, Louisville, Baylor, Florida and lots of others thought he would look good at their place.
Tennessee had been fully aware of Brandon Huntley-Hatfield all along. He was a product of the B.Maze Elite AAU program, directed by former UT point guard Bobby Maze. The Vols offered a scholarship in 2019.
Much of the basketball world believed Brandon would probably wait until 2022 to enter college. Barnes stayed in touch, just in case he wanted in earlier. Sure enough, he reclassified. With minimum talk, he signed with Tennessee.
“This is really an indication of how much I’ve grown to respect Coach Barnes and the UT program and how much they made me feel wanted,” said Huntley-Hatfield.
Bingo! Just like that, Tennessee’s 2021 recruiting class shot up from good to very good to great. Some say the incoming class is No. 2 in America.
Almost forgot – the Vols picked up another 6-9 player somewhat unexpectedly. John Fulkerson decided to do a do-over. He did not like last season. He talked with Coach Barnes about a sixth year with the Volunteers.
“Great idea,” said Barnes.
Cross your fingers. Fulkerson might stay forever.
There is more. Josiah-Jordan James remains on the Tennessee roster. So does Santiago Vescovi and Victor Bailey and Olivier Nkamhoua and Uros Plavsic.
Please remember where you heard this: Tennessee looks more and more like a basketball school. All the coach has to do is persuade the newcomers to play up to their reputations.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]