Tennessee is a basketball school

Marvin WestFeature, westwords

Tennessee was once considered a football school. I remember it well.

Tennessee may, in time, regain that distinction but it is currently much better in basketball. The indoor game is good and hasn’t peaked. The one in the grass is recovering from a 10-year slump. It does appear coaching makes a difference in both.

Rick Barnes’ surprising Volunteers, one of the best stories in the college basketball world last season at 26-9, are now in everybody’s top 10 projections. Don’t expect them to win the national championship but they do have one of the finest combos in the country, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield.

We can’t be sure about lofty rankings. The same people who last October picked Tennessee for 13th in the Southeastern Conference now say these Vols will finish second. This is essentially the same team a year older.

It is a really good show. You can sneak a peek on Halloween. Tusculum will come in for an exhibition game, 7 p.m. at Thompson-Boling arena. There are ticket treats. Many are available for $5 each.

The Vols are not as flashy or as explosive as some teams. They have no one-and-done Kentucky types. They do seem to know what they are doing, give great effort and play aggressive defense. Opponents say they are no fun.

Barnes says they are not good enough. The Vols finished sixth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. As strong as that sounds, it fell short of the goals the team set for itself.

Barnes said “We were close in a lot of them, but we didn’t get them all. We can do better.”

The coach also says Tennessee can improve offensively. He wants balance.

“We would like to get to a point where we’re not relying on one or two guys.”

Barnes, 64, SEC coach of the year, has been as much a surprise as his team. Texas put him down in 2015. Dave Hart, accused of rarely doing anything right, scooped him up before the ink was dry on termination papers.

Rick had been coaching almost forever. Based on personal experience with aging, it entered my mind that he might be getting old. I wondered if the game and this younger generation had sped past. I may have asked aloud if the big numbers on his Tennessee contract were the last pleasant entry on his retirement plan. Soft landing? Mission accomplished.

My bad.

Barnes coaches with passion but he is not a total nut case. He can take an occasional hour off. Now and then he smiles. By telling the truth, he doesn’t have to worry about who he told what.

Some say he is no longer a heavyweight hitter in recruiting. It was comforting not to hear Tennessee mentioned in the FBI investigation.

As for getting old, he is within a few victories of John Wooden’s total. That accomplishment sounds great and will be cause for celebration.

Barnes and his staff have demonstrated developmental skills. Almost everybody has improved. Kyle Alexander is my poster person. He knew the ball was round when he came from Canada. He can now run even faster and jump higher and knows how to play. He is a very valuable defender and rebounder. That was underscored in the NCAA tournament loss. His absence was decisive.

We’ll see this season how much very quick Jordan Bone has improved. This is important.

Point guards do not routinely meet Barnes’ standards. The coach always sees something the player could have done better. I get the feeling Barnes wants Bone to control the offense, distribute the ball wisely, improve his jump shot but take it to the hoop when there is an open lane.

Just a few little things – plus consistency and fewer turnovers.

Guard play is crucial. How Bone, Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden perform may eventually determine how high these Volunteers fly. Three-point shot percentages are relevant.

If Williams is even stronger and superbly conditioned, he might play more minutes at peak level without growing weary (and fouling). If Schofield combines his fiercely competitive spirit with better decisions, NBA scouts will be properly impressed.

If the other muscle guys refine their games, if the thin men add bulk and strength, if the leapers do in games what they do for pure joy, depth will be satisfactory and this team will be improved.

Remember where you heard this: There was a time when the best big man won. Now, when it matters most, guards are the winning edge.

Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is [email protected]

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