By: Aaron Gibson
Junior Staff Writer
The All Vol Call in Show
It's no secret that Rick Barnes has propelled Tennessee basketball to unprecedented heights. Under his stewardship, Tennessee has won 65% of their regular-season games, claimed the SEC tournament for the first time since 1979 (a feat unachieved by eight previous head coaches), and won the most SEC games within the league over the past five years. Barnes has been a paragon of consistency and stability throughout his career, including his tenure at Tennessee. However, his one glaring shortcoming throughout his 36-year coaching career has been his consistent under performance in March.
Boasting a career record of 780-406, Barnes has an impressive 65% win percentage. But in March, his record dwindles to a mere 27-27, with his last Elite Eight appearance in 2008 and his last Final Four in 2003. However, Tennessee's March struggles are not merely a Rick Barnes issue, they reflect a broader program problem, irrespective of the coach or the players.
In 1977, during the final year of the Ernie and Bernie show, Syracuse upset Tennessee in overtime. Both King and Grunfeld concluded their illustrious Tennessee careers without a single tournament win. The esteemed Ray Mears also retired prematurely in 1977, devoid of any tournament victories.
Another Tennessee legend, Dale Ellis, played for UT from 1979-1983. Despite participating in the NCAA tournament each year, earning All-American honors twice, and being named SEC Player of the Year twice, Ellis's best March performance was reaching the Sweet 16 in 1980. Tennessee was defeated 62-48 by a Virginia team led by Ralph Sampson.
Other notable Tennessee greats include Allen Houston (Tennessee's all-time leading scorer) who never played in a single tournament game. CJ Watson only danced once in his senior year, losing to a seventh-seeded Wichita State team as a two seed. Chris Lofton had a pair of Sweet 16 appearances, while Grant Williams only made it to the Sweet 16 once.
I am not solely blaming the players or any specific coach for Tennessee's March misfortunes. There are multiple factors that contribute to a long tournament run, and often, the best team isn't the one hoisting the trophy at the end of the year. Tennessee's sole Elite Eight team wasn't the most talented or even the best squad Tennessee has ever fielded. Yet, they hit their stride in March, and JP Prince began playing point guard at an exceedingly high level. The point I am making is that what Barnes has achieved in March is more the norm than the exception. A significant section of the fan base seems to believe that the blame rests entirely on Barnes and that replacing him would instantly lead to a long tournament run.
While this is likely Tennessee's deepest and most talented team under Barnes, it's crucial to understand that myriad factors influence a long run in March. Fans should savor the journey rather than fixating on the destination.