Rick Barnes is somebody I’d want coaching my son. This Tennessee Basketball starting lineup is arguably the best in school history. So what could somebody possibly not like about the Vols, under Barnes, playing a near-perfect game in their 88-68 win against the LSU Tigers?
Their best player, Dalton Knecht, had 27 points. Jonas Aidoo had 10 down low and three blocks. Zakai Zeigler had 17 points, nine assists and three steals. As a team they were 11-of-24 from three, led by Zeigler and Jordan Gainey, who both went 3-of-6 from outside. Gainey had 18 points.
Well, Tennessee Basketball is still giving too many minutes to its key players. The Vols only go seven and a half deep. Aidoo, Knecht, Zeigler, Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi are the starters. Gainey and Jahmai Mashack are the only consistent players off the bench. Tobe Awaka is a semi-rotational player.
That’s as deep as Barnes went Wednesday. The Vols jumped out to a 13-0 lead and held a double-digit lead from the 8-minute mark in the first half onward. They were in complete control at home against an unranked team with a losing record in the SEC. For some reason, though, Barnes didn’t dip into his rotation.
UT has flamed out in NCAA Tournaments under Barnes in large part due to starters logging too many minutes in the season. They’re usually tired by March. This was the perfect game to get them some rest, as they need to have fresh legs when the Big Dance comes. Instead, Barnes played Zeigler 36 minutes and Knecht, his best player, 35.
There’s no justification for that. Barnes is such a principled coach he believes players earn playing time. Well, shouldn’t players earn rest? How is UT supposed to make any noise in the tournament when they go seven and a half deep. Awaka himself only played 11 minutes.
It’s fine if Barnes believes in teaching players lessons. That’s what makes him one of the best people to be coaching this sport. However, he shouldn’t sacrifice a championship for it. The Grant Williams Vols in 2019 flamed out because they only went six-deep. Tennessee Basketball may suffer a similar fate this year.