Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes has often said if you don’t get better every day, you’re falling behind because other teams are improving.
But he seems to think his second-ranked team (18-3, 7-1 SEC) will stay hungry, stay focused, stay disciplined as it heads to Florida (12-9, 5-3 SEC) for a Wednesday night contest.
“I love this team,” said Barnes, who has had 18 UT teams ranked in the top five in the nation compared to 17 times in the previous 70 years. “I think we’ve got a chance to be as good as we want to be.
“It’s up to one thing: Are we tough enough to embrace the daily grind and not worry about going to the Final Four or worry about the NCAA Tournament? But can we build a team that can be successful that time of year?”
While Barnes has put together a Hall of Fame resume as a coach, he has made just one Final Four in his career. At Tennessee, he has made just one Sweet 16 in seven seasons. His career NCAA tourney record is an unimpressive 25-26.
Critics say he works his team too hard late in the season, thus players wear out.
While Barnes mentions embracing the daily grind, would it serve his teams well if he backed off the grind a bit, shortening practices in late February and March and giving players more rest during games?
Time will tell.
Here are some of the ingredients to making the Final Four and how UT stacks up in those areas, ranked on a 1-to-5 scale.
Point guard play: 4.5
Zakai Zeigler has been outstanding in recent weeks. He had a 22-point, 10-assist game against Texas. He’s had double digit assists in 3 of the last 8 games. He’s a dangerous 3-point shooter, directs the offense, is a ball hawk on defense and can make clutch free throws. The only reason this isn’t a 5 is UT’s backup point guards have been average.
Tennessee leads the nation in field goal defense, 3-point defense and scoring defense. Ten times opponents have scored 50 of fewer points. UT can defend the perimeter and the post.
“We’ve got a group of guys that believe in defense and want to be good at it,” Barnes said.
Tennessee basketball has ample outside shooters and, now and then, an inside player will score 20 points. But UT is inconsistent in both areas. Barnes noted that in a recent practice, communication was outstanding on the defensive end. “Why don’t we do that on offense?” he wondered. UT is also prone to 4-to-5-minute scoring droughts. That could be a killer in postseason play.
Before the Kentucky debacle, UT was outrebounding opponents by 14.5 per game. It outrebounded Texas 38-23. It rebounds by committee. No one player ranks among the SEC rebound leaders, but three players average more than 5 rebounds per game, and three more (two of them guards) average more than 4 rebounds per game.
UT has shown the ability to go toe-to-toe with any opponent. Even though it was an exhibition, Tennessee basketball throttled Gonzaga by 19 points and, after a closed scrimmage against Michigan State, had Spartans coach Tom Izzo saying UT was a Final Four caliber team. The lone blip was the home loss to Kentucky. Texas admitted that the Vols out-toughed them, and Texas was a top 10 team.
Free throw shooting: 4
As a team, UT shoots 73% from the foul line. That’s OK. But in the clutch, Zeigler and Santiago Vescovi are money. Freshman Julian Phillips is hitting 80%. Josiah-Jordan James is right at 90%. The only concern is UT’s big men aren’t good from the line. Uros Plavsic is at 11 for 29, went 0 for 4 against Texas and has shot a couple of air balls in recent games. Jonas Aidoo (68.4%) and Tobe Awaka (64.7%) have done OK with Awaka recently going 4 for 4.
Ability to get a basket when the half-court offense breaks down: 3
UT doesn’t have many players that can score off the dribble or take an opponent 1-on-1 late in the shot clock. In fact, when the shot clock shows less than 10 seconds, UT often doesn’t get a good look. This is an area of concern in close games.