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Tennessee Basketball: Rick Barnes’ future depends on what Vols AD wants

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Rick Barnes’ detractors didn’t need more proof. They got it anyway.

Tennessee’s basketball team, led by Barnes, left a Big Apple Thud in Madison Square Garden when the Vols lost to Florida Atlantic 62-55 in the Sweet 16 on Thursday evening. There was more than one common theme amongst the elimination game and Barnes’ career…

The Vols, as they have for most of the season and much of Barnes’ tenure at Tennessee, played stout defense, had a long scoring drought and struggled to manufacture points. Oh, and Barnes decided against calling a timeout during that drought which occurred early in the second half and doomed the Vols. That’s been the Barnes’ mantra in key losses since taking over Tennessee’s program in 2015.

Barnes has only been able to lead Tennessee to the Sweet 16, which he has done twice. Otherwise, Tennessee has been bounced from the NCAA Tournament during the first weekend with Barnes at the helm, which has made for an incredibly frustrated fan base. Tennessee has never made the Final Four in program history. Barnes has only reached the Final Four once since becoming a head coach in 1997. That was 25 years ago. However, Bruce Pearl proved Tennessee can survive beyond the Sweet 16 with an Elite Eight run in 2009-10.

That history makes it difficult to argue that basketball has changed drastically and left Barnes behind. It would seem to indicate that Barnes has always been behind. However, his record would indicate that isn’t the case.

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Barnes is 779-405 during his career while being a head coach at George Mason, Providence, Clemson, Texas and Tennessee. That’s enough victories for 38th all time. However, Barnes is 27-26 in the NCAA Tournament. That’s not good for much of anything in March. So, as one might expect, some fans are ready to make a change. Doing so could be dangerous.

In some ways, Barnes is similar to a couple of coaches. First, Tom Izzo at Michigan State preaches defense, much like Barnes. However, Izzo has that one coveted national championship to go with his 686 wins. That trumps Barnes’ resume. If Barnes, 68, could get that one championship, he could coach at Tennessee until he’s 80-years-old. That is proving difficult.

Barnes is also reminiscent of another coach that Tennessee fans should know well: former Georgia football coach Mark Richt. Like Barnes, Richt had Georgia pounding on the door of a national championship with a conservative style. Also, like Barnes, he was beloved by the fan base despite his lack of postseason production. That brings about the ultimate question: What does Tennessee truly expect out of its basketball program?

If Tennessee just wants to be relevant at basketball and not end up in a decade of dysfunction like the Vols did with football in the 2010s, keep Barnes and stay status quo. If the Vols are serious about being a championship contender in basketball, Barnes probably isn’t the answer.

The ultimate deciding factor is, of course, up to athletic director Danny White. Can he hire a better coach than Barnes if Tennessee decides to?  White made a great hire with Josh Heupel in football. Can he work his magic again? Perhaps.

White hired Nate Oats to become Buffalo’s head basketball coach in 2015. However, that was an odd predicament. White interviewed Buffalo’s players about Oats, who was an interim head coach after former head coach Bobby Hurley left Buffalo for Arizona State. The players must have spoken highly of Oats as he was elevated from assistant to head coach. Oats has certainly had success at Alabama, but at what cost? 

The Crimson Tide has been saddled with an ongoing investigation into its program after a mid-season shooting that involved some members of the basketball program. Hence, Nick Saban seemed to reference that earlier this week when he referred to there’s no “wrong place at the wrong time.” Saban doesn’t want anything to do with serious charges around Alabama’s athletic department and neither does White nor Heupel. That’s the risk. The reward is obvious with the right hire, winning a national championship or at least making the Final Four on occasion.

Heupel and Saban would also love a robust athletic department to showcase to recruits. One could argue that the Vols already have that and that football could only be hurt by a coaching change in a high-profile sport like basketball. There are plenty of moving parts in any pending decision that may be made about Barnes.

Tennessee’s athletic department is currently riding high now that the football team is respectful once again. That gives White some fan equity to make a tough decision. That shouldn’t make Barnes feel comfortable.

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