Tennessee basketball and truth in advertising

Marvin Westwestwords

“You get what you pay for” is sometimes fact and sometimes fiction.

Tennessee is paying Rick Barnes $4.95 million to coach the basketball team this season. The Vols are doing the two-step, one game forward, two back. Sometimes they get in each other’s way. They once were sixth in the country. They have fallen out of the top 25.

Rick Barnes

Players have already cost the coach a $400,000 bonus, the token of appreciation set aside for winning the Southeastern Conference championship. That, obviously, didn’t happen. It seems unlikely but they might win the tournament. That would be worth half as much.

Should the Vols miraculously muscle up and seize the national title, Barnes would receive a congratulatory $1.5 million bonus. Just getting Tennessee to its first Final Four would net him $1 million.

Dream on.

Not so long ago, Barnes was national coach of the year. He was a great strategist and motivator. This year he has produced a national disappointment. That is not an original thought.

Dana O’Neil of The Athletic lists Tennessee among the worst disappointments.

“This was a team I thought not only would run away with a very mediocre SEC, but also would challenge for national supremacy. Instead, the offense appears to be, at best, inconsistent, and at worst, a puttering mess. The Vols just seem rudderless.”

Competitive fire comes and goes. There have been games when the Vols didn’t seem to value possession of the ball. There have been games when John Fulkerson disappeared.

What happened at Auburn Saturday did little to improve appearances. The Tigers are 6-10 in the conference. They had lost six of their previous seven. Tennessee fought at the finish but was generally lethargic.

Tennessee is now 9-7 and fifth in SEC standings. We have come to realize expectations were erroneous. The hype was based on how Fulkerson and Yves Pons closed last season and the outstanding recruiting class.

I didn’t do it. I had nothing to do with the preseason prediction that Tennessee would win the SEC. Only elite sportswriters and broadcasters were asked for foresight.

Honest confession: In December I did write that Barnes had what may be the school’s most talented squad – as in ever. The exact words were “There may not be an instant superstar but there is great depth, enthusiastic defenders, exceptional speed and young athletes with rare potential.”

Somebody else wrote that “Tennessee looks like the most complete team based on experience – Fulkerson and Pons. The Vols have defense, offense and options, making them the team to beat going into conference play.”

Early games were too easy – Appalachian State, Tennessee Tech, St. Joseph’s of Philadelphia and South Carolina-Upstate didn’t prove anything.

There were fun introductions to Oregon transfer Victor Bailey and highly regarded newcomers Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer. Josiah-Jordan James demonstrated leadership potential. Santiago Vescovi was somewhat improved.

Olivier Nkamhoua, 6-8 and strong, spotted an opportunity and reached for it. For a little while, graduate transfer E.J. Anosike looked like he might contribute.

Since early middle in the league race, we have all been reevaluating. Tennessee has no inside attack. Freshman guards fluctuated. Sometimes they were brilliant. Sometimes they looked like freshmen.

Barnes offered much the same explanation for various poor showings: The players just didn’t do what they were told to do. I have always thought it the coach’s job to get such things corrected.

There were highlights and lowlights. The romp at Missouri was fun. The loss at home to Alabama was a rude awakening. Bailey and Vescovi missed 10 shots each. Tennessee hit 31.8 percent.

Tennessee defeated Texas A&M as Vescovi made six of 10 three-point tries. Tennessee wiped out Vanderbilt. The Vols were 10-1 going into Gainesville. They suffered a devastating loss, 75-49. They got hammered. Bailey went one for 12.

“There’s not one guy that started the game that was productive,” Barnes said.

Cuonzo Martin got back at Tennessee when Missouri came calling. Cuonzo showed a touch of class. He did not rub it in.

The Vols were great against Kansas. They went to the rim, hit 16 of 17 free throws and jumped six places in the AP poll. TV announcers expounded on Final Four probabilities

Consistently inconsistent … Ole Miss 52, Tennessee 50, bad game, very bad. The Rebels went to a half-court trap. The Vols went 12:27 without a field goal.

“Great guard play, we didn’t have it,” Barnes said.

The loss at LSU was a meltdown. Vol guards could not contain Tiger guards. Tennessee inside players produced little or nothing.

Highlights and lowlights …

Fifty points from Springer and Johnson, clutch defense from James and a momentum-shifting 26-6 second-half run produced an 82-71 victory at Kentucky.

An electrifying, 29-point performance from Bailey left South Carolina for dead.

Seven-point favorite Tennessee was atrocious from start to finish in a 70-55 loss to visiting Kentucky. The Vols shot 32.1 percent. They lost the rebounding battle by 12. Disruptive Wildcats wouldn’t let Tennessee run its offense.

Vanderbilt, without two top players, made their rematch much too exciting. Can you believe 56-52 with 3:46 left?

Eight-point underdog Auburn, minus its point guard, won on hustle, aggressive offensive rebounding and an abundance of free throws. Tennessee reactions looked slow.

Strange season, strange indeed, and disappointing, considering what might have been.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

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