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Tennessee basketball and coach Rick Barnes can achieve unprecedented heights with Vols win over Purdue

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Tennessee coach Rick Barnes is one win away from being considered one of the best coaches in UT history. He’s also just one win away from forever changing the way his career will be viewed historically.

Let’s just say there’s a lot on the line when the Vols take on Purdue in the Elite Eight on Sunday.

What would one more win do for Tennessee? Well, it would send the Vols to the Final Four for the first time in school history. The Vols have only reached the Elite Eight, as they’ve done this season, one other time. That was under former coach Bruce Pearl in 2009-2010. Coincidentally, Barnes topped Pearl on Friday with the ninth tournament win, which is the most at Tennessee. Pearl just has eight. Therefore, there is no argument, another win would mean Barnes is the most successful coach in men’s basketball history. No offense to Ray Mears or Jerry Green, but they just didn’t make the deep tournaments runs that have also alluded Barnes till now.

How about the other Tennessee coaching demigods in other sports? Well, at least the ones that garner headlines.

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Let’s start with Pat Summitt. No one is going to be more successful nor more impactful on their sport than Summitt was on hers. She helped build women’s basketball and won eight championships along the way. For the remainder of man’s existence on Earth, it’s unlikely any coach will have anywhere near the success that Summit had. So, how about football or baseball?

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Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer won a national championship and had a distinguished career. Barnes would have to win a title to match Fulmer in the modern-era of Tennessee college athletics. That could happen this season. However, if Barnes beats Purdue, he’d have two Final Four runs in his career. With the good fortune that is needed to advance in the tournament, two great runs in basketball is at least comparable to winning it all once in football. Just don’t tell Fulmer that.

Tennessee’s baseball team has flirted with greatness, as has the Lady Vols in softball. Still, both programs’ high-water mark seems to be making the College World Series and making some noise in Omaha or Oklahoma City. Actual championships have been tough to grasp. However, the Vols probably have their best coach in school history, baseball manager Tony Vitello, in place and he hasn’t achieved the same measure of success as Barnes. The Lady Vols have had deep tournament runs under coaches Karen and Ralph Weekly, but still no championship.

Another Final Four berth or a national championship would certainly alter Barnes’ legacy for the better and, possibly, immensely. The latter could be incredibly gratifying for Barnes’ personally after he was replaced at Texas by Shaka Smart, one of the nation’s hottest young coaches at the time, following the 2014-15 season. In five seasons, Smart was just 109-86 at Texas, winning just 56-percent of his games. His predecessor, Barnes, won 69-percent of his games in 17 seasons at Texas.

Since being fired by Texas, the Longhorns have missed the postseason three times and been bounced out of the NCAA Tournament three times in the first round, once in the second round, made the Elite Eight once and were eliminated by Barnes and Tennessee in the second round this season.

Looking for a game with a lot on the line. Well, in just one contest, the Vols can make the Final Four for the first time in school history, solidify the resume of one of the all-time coaching greats and see one its all-time most likeable coach become one of its most successful coaches. Let’s be clear: one run alone won’t top Fulmer and Summitt is practically unapproachable, but Barnes is just days away from forever changing the way his career and Tennessee basketball are viewed forever.

The Vols were once viewed as a team that just couldn’t get it done in March. That could all change with a win against the Boilermakers on Sunday. History is on the line.

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