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Tennessee Basketball: Rick Barnes one win away from becoming the greatest coach in Vols history

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The Elite Eight is the furthest Tennessee Basketball has ever gone in the NCAA Tournament, and the Vols have only done it once: in 2010 under Bruce Pearl. They have only crossed the 30-win threshold and reached No. 1 in the polls twice, and they have 11 SEC Regular Season titles and five SEC Tournament titles.

If Barnes can lead the Vols to a win over the Creighton Bluejays Friday, he will be the only coach in school history who has accomplished all of these things. Pearl and Barnes each saw 30-win and No. 1 ranked teams, in 2008 and 2019 respectively. They each won one regular season title, in 2008 and 2024.

Meanwhile, Pearl made three Sweet 16 appearances, while no other Tennessee Basketball coach before Barnes ever made more than one. Barnes just made his third. He is also in his sixth NCAA Tournament, tying Pearl for the most in school history.

Simply put, if Barnes and UT beat Creighton, he will officially become the greatest coach the Vols have ever had on the hardwood…on the men’s side. There may not be a national championship or even a Final Four in his future, but the history of the Vols is so thin that doesn’t matter.

Of course, UT historians will immediately jump to Ray Mears. After all, Mears oversaw the Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld era, or the Ernie and Bernie show. He put the program on the map and did win three SEC regular season championships while with the Vols.

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However, only one of those titles was outright. Barnes has two regular season titles, one outright, plus an SEC Tournament title. Mears also never won an NCAA Tournament game. Don DeVoe had similar success early, winning the SEC Tournament in 1979, but he only got one regular season title, and it wasn’t outright.

Now, you can go back in history to the John Mauer era, who won two regular season and two tournament titles in 1941 and 1943, and even Blair Gullion before that, who won both in 1936. That’s such a different era, though, and neither had real tournament success, so it’s laughable to take those seriously.

In the grand scheme of things, Tennessee Basketball is thinking much bigger than Barnes just achieving this accomplishment. However, it can’t be understated what he has accomplished at UT, particularly given where the program was when he took it over. He’s on the precipice of something even greater.

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