Wise and witty Doug Jones, faithful westwords reader, has surged into first place in concise column commentary.
His short needle after the Tennessee loss at Florida was “Is it March already?”
The mention of “March” was the most recent reminder to Rick Barnes that some of us are counting. The senior coach, on his way to the hall of fame, delivers a lot of Volunteer victories but not in the NCAA Tournament.
Nothing new you say. This is not a Barnes exclusive. Tennessee has never won a national basketball championship. Tennessee has never been in a Final Four. Tennessee has never been close – enough.
This is Barnes’ eighth season with the Volunteers. His record is 169-85. His teams participated in the last four NCAA Tournaments. The Vols have won four games under the bright lights.
There was a time when just getting to the tournament was good. Barnes’ record at Texas raised the bar. For current base pay of $5.2 million and another million in bonuses, the coach is expected to produce banners for the rafters.
Barnes’ fundamental problem is losing to inferior opponents. Last March, third-seeded Tennessee defeated 14-seed Longwood and lost to 11 Michigan. The 2020-21 team, fifth-seeded, lost to No.12 Oregon in the opening round.
In 2019, Tennessee was 31-6 and seeded second. It defeated 15-seed Colgate in the round of 64, 10-seed Iowa in the round of 32 and lost to 3-seed Purdue in the Sweet 16.
Before that, 2018, the Vols were a 3-seed with a 26-9 record. They defeated 14-seed Wright State and lost to 11-seed Loyola Chicago and the famous nun, Sister Jean, team chaplain, then 98, now 103.
Why, you ask, do very good Tennessee teams lose to ordinary foes in the big show?
There may be as many ideas as there are fans, something in excess of 20,000 at the big building plus many more who watch every game from home.
By March, the Vols are worn out from fighting through a very difficult Southeastern Conference schedule and tournament.
Hmmm, how come Kentucky, Arkansas, Florida and Kentucky again didn’t get tired? In the relatively recent past, they’ve gone all the way.
Response: The SEC is far more difficult than it once was.
Maybe the Vols have never been as good as their reputation.
Response: Are you kidding me? Grant Williams wasn’t good enough?
And last year: Was that team not Final Four quality? It won 12 of the last 13. It beat Kentucky twice. Those Vols won Tennessee’s first SEC Tournament title in 43 years.
Response: The NBA did think that team was pretty good.
Maybe Barnes is at fault. He is a demanding coach, famous for detailed development of young talent.
Response: Indeed, the coach and his players do work hard. That has always been his MO. He took the Longhorns to 16 tournaments in 17 seasons at Texas. He never won. He made it to one Final Four.
Defense. Perhaps defense is not the winning edge.
Response: Please say that isn’t so. All these years we have been told that defense travels, that it is still with you when shots fail to fall.
Shooting in the high 20s last week against the Gators in Gainesville and Auburn Tigers in Thompson-Boling was not very reassuring. Anything might happen in Nashville on Wednesday. The Commodores are unpredictable.
Missouri has already exceeded expectations.
The moment of truth is actually three dates, Alabama in Knoxville on Feb. 15, at Kentucky on Feb. 18 and at surprising Texas A&M on Feb. 21.
Doug Jones has already made up his mind. If you remain hopeful of NCAA progress, send Rick Barnes some coaching tips.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected]