If Jim Valvano was still with us, he’d say “Never give up, never, ever give up.”
If Willie Nelson was here, he’d be singing a sad song, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”
Best I can do, under the circumstances, is tell you this might not be Rick Barnes’ best year.
This Tennessee basketball team has failed to produce results equivalent to the coach’s salary. The record is 15-12 and 7-7 against Southeastern Conference foes. Unless my projections are strangely amiss, the Vols will be fortunate to finish at .500.
They compete, do they ever, and sometimes they are almost brilliant. Alas, they don’t win enough games. Barnes says they make mistakes which are simply unacceptable this time of year. The coach does not use profanity. One of his most descriptive words is “ridiculous.”
Truth be told, turnovers, settling for threes, missed layups and defensive lapses are never exactly embraced by the coach, at any time of year. He explains, as he always has, what must be done to win and is annoyed when players do not execute.
“Our guys do play hard,” said Barnes. “They just don’t play as smart and mature as we need them to play.”
It would be very good if the coach somehow coached more smartness and maturity.
Next year will probably be better. Incoming recruits are said to be outstanding. John Fulkerson will likely add a few ounces of bulk. Santiago Vescovi could become a ball-handling wizard. Josiah-Jordan James will probably get well. Yves Pons, genuine warrior, will fight lions and tigers if they dare come near.
Doesn’t all that sound exciting?
No matter what, Barnes will receive a $250,000 raise which might boost motivation past the boiling point.
The current problem has roots running in several directions.
Considering that four-fifths of last year’s lineup turned pro, even modest expectations were a wee bit over the top. Because Barnes has excelled at developing available talent, some of us thought he’d do it again.
In fact, there wasn’t all that much to develop. A two-year gap in elite recruiting has been discovered. It showed when some who came decided or were told to go away.
The loss of Lamonte Turner was lethal. He was the natural leader. This was going to be his team. No challenge was big enough to intimidate him.
Turner looked bad in November. He lasted until the middle of December. He finally decided it was time to consider the future. He ran up the white flag and had his bum shoulder repaired.
Tennessee had no replacement.
Several other unsettling things happened. The NCAA was slow to decide Uros Plavsic’s eligibility appeal. While waiting and waiting, he served as a practice player. There was no urgency to prepare him to play.
When he was finally cleared and actually was needed, he did not look ready. He was tentative. When told to crank it up, he became a bull in the china shop. Uros is big. Tennessee needs big.
James was gimpy and mostly watched preseason practice. He eventually became so gimpy, he was parked for four games. James is a tremendous talent. He has not performed anywhere near his five-star forecast.
Jordan Bowden picked his senior season to misplace his shooting stroke. To his credit, Bowden never lost his defensive commitment. He was a surprising super shooter at Auburn. His 28 points were not enough to make up for others’ mistakes.
Vescovi was a great Christmas gift. Just think where the Vols would be without him. He is a smooth shooter but has not solved the sporadic turnover tendency. He will. He’s 18.
Pons, much improved over past years, remains somewhat unpredictable. I still haven’t decided what to think about Jalen Johnson, hustler Davonte Gaines, Olivier Nkamhoua and Drew Pember. They have strengths and weaknesses. From game to game, it appears Barnes is still trying to decide who might do what.
Inconsistency is the only team trademark that has been consistent. Great play, turnover, hot streak, weak finish. Good half and sometimes even good game, another not so good.
Barnes has been a minor distraction. He lost a couple of goodwill points for being honest about spring negotiations with UCLA. He admitted to a long-time infatuation with the John Wooden legacy.
Barnes once won the Wooden “Keys to Life” Award.
In April, he said more than he had to say in saying he would have become coach of the Bruins if the school had paid the $5 million buyout owed Tennessee.
Some in the great circle of Volunteer faithful were hurt by the truth. Some loyalists felt “disrespected.”
UT athletics director Phillip Fulmer stood straight up and said nobody was going to take this coach if money was the only issue. He gathered the support to provide a massive raise, to national championship level, five years, $26 million. Only Kentucky’s John Calipari and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski make more.
It is obvious that the UT team has some catching-up to do.
Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.