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Tennessee Basketball: SEC Awards validate Rick Barnes’ coaching

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There have been plenty of things to criticize about Tennessee Basketball head coach Rick Barnes over the years. Player development has never been one of them. The SEC Awards for 2023-24 revealed Monday probably proved that more than ever before.

Dalton Knecht was named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, and Zakai Zeigler was named Defensive Player of the Year. Both earned First Team All-SEC, and Jonas Aidoo was Second Team All-SEC. Aidoo and Zeigler both made the SEC All-Defensive team.

None of these awards exemplify Barnes’ coaching better than Knecht, though. Last year, Knecht was Second Team All Big Sky for the Northern Colorado Bears. Somehow, though, coming to the SEC, he upped his scoring and became Player of the Year. What type of player makes that leap?

Knecht got more efficient across the board, averaging a half turnover less a game (2.1 to 1.6) and increasing his true shooting percentage from .586 to .592 despite his usage rate going up from 28.2 percent to 32.1 percent. While his assists were the same, his assist percentage went from 11.5 to 13.5.

Those improvements happened despite the fact that Knecht played a significantly higher level of competition and he transferred Tennessee Basketball do develop specifically on defense. Don’t worry, that happened too, but it didn’t show up in the raw numbers.

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In terms of efficiency, Knecht’s defensive win shares went from 0.7 to 1.7, his defensive box plus minus went from -1.1 to 2.9 and his blocks percentage went from 1.6 to 1.8. Simply put, he truly did develop on defense, but the 6’6′ 197-pound wing developed all-around under Barnes, a testament to his coaching.

Speaking of defense, though, Zeigler’s play is another testament to that. Remember, we’re talking about a 5’9″ 160-pound guard. Who that size ever becomes the most threatening defensive player in the SEC? Add in the fact that he was once a three-star recruit and is coming off a season-ending injury, and this is just as impressive.

Once again, though, it’s not like Zeigler is just defense. He was All-SEC for a reason, averaging 11.6 points per game and six assists. He improved his true shooting percentage from .511 to .547 and reduced his turnover percentage 17.8 to 16.7, averaging only 2.1 a game.

Ironically, Jonas Aidoo is the most highly touted of the three Tennessee Basketball players recognized by the SEC, but he’s still developing. He did average over 12 points and seven and a half rebounds, and he almost picked up two blocks a game. This is the player Barnes could potentially turn into a superstar.

Overall, though, these types of individual success stories are the most important thing to see in players when you think specifically about coaching. Yes, Barnes is too tied to principle, and yes, it may hurt him when it comes to the NCAA Tournament, as it has plenty of times.

As an actual teacher and developer of talent, though, nobody does it better. Tennessee Basketball can be proud of that aspect of Barnes’ style. Players all over the world want to go to Rocky Top because they know they will be coached up under Barnes, and many owe their careers to him because of that.

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