In what is quickly becoming a troubling and common theme, the Tennessee Volunteers basketball team, for the fourth time this season, blew another big lead, this time at the hands of Auburn, a program that hadn’t won in Knoxville since January of 1998. It seems that Butch Jones's bad habit of screwing up double digits leads has infected Rick Barnes and the basketball team as well.
Tonight's 94-84 loss wasn't as bad as their other three defeats this season, because they didn't have the lead at halftime for the first time all year, despite dominating AND leading most of the first 20 minutes. They were completely undone in the first half (and frankly, all night) by back-breaking turnovers, head-scratching shot selection, and frankly, their continued overall sloppiness.
Their four losses this season (Villanova, UNC, Arkansas, and Auburn) have all been eerily similar; in the first half, the Vols jumped out to big leads by forcing a million turnovers, rebounding the hell out of the basketball, getting out in transition, making some threes, and feeding Grant Williams. But as the games tightened up in the second half, they folded their tents in a puzzling display of sloppiness and ineptitude. ‘Nova started getting to the rim at will, Carolina made every the big play down the stretch, the offense collapsed into a black hole against the Razorbacks, and tonight, they suddenly forgot how to both rebound and cover open shooters at the three point line.
After watching the first month and half of the season, I thought the Vols had the right mix of guys to make a deep tournament run. The simple, but effective "Rebounding+defense+length+Grant Williams" seemed like a winning formula that they could ride all the way to the Elite Eight. But after seeing them in conference play the last two games, I’m starting to have doubts about anything other than a NIT appearance. The offense is somewhere between really average and outright awful late in games unless Williams is catching the ball at the elbow area and either beating his man off the dribble or shooting a contested runner over him. And when he fouled out of the Arkansas game late in the second half, it literally became impossible for the Vols to create quality looks, which in turn forced them into a series of awkward Jordan Bone pull ups that never had a chance to go in from the moment the ball left his hand. They just don’t have that crafty, smart creator who can get open looks for his teammates or himself when the offense breaks down. Their only real advantage is Williams, who is a difficult matchup for most teams due to his size and quickness. But besides that, what else can they really threaten teams with? Three point shooting? They make just under 40% of their attempts, which puts them at just 29th nationally. And let's be honest about Williams; he's a nice player, but he's probably not even one of the 7 or 8 best players in the SEC unless he's really feeling it. All of these issues put them in a bind, particularly in late game, pressure situations. Basically, if they aren’t forcing turnovers, getting out in transition, and/or getting an A+ game from Williams, they really aren’t all that difficult to guard.
And I get it, this is still a young team, one that was picked to finish 13th in the SEC in the preseason. But they’re just so sloppy. And I know I've said that word like three times already, but it really encapsulates this team perfectly. Let’s take tonight’s game, one that saw the Vols turn the ball over 15 times and lose the rebounding battle 46-38. They also shot a paltry 41.4% from the field, and hit only 28.6% of their attempts from three point range. Hell, the only reason they scored 84 points was because they attempted 37 free throws.
Which leads me to this: are we sure Rick Barnes is a good coach? For all the talent and great teams he had at Texas, it always seemed like his Longhorn squads underachieved. They didn’t make it past the second round of the NCAA tournament his last 7 years at Texas, and during his 16 tournament runs, his teams were eliminated by a lower seeded squad 9 times. Barnes strikes me as a guy that is more than capable as a recruiter, but someone that would also make you nervous as hell if he was your head coach in a big game, because he really doesn't bring anything spectacular to the table scheme-wise. I think it's fair to say that he's a below average game coach, and I think that's been spelled out over his 30 years as a head coach. The Vols didn’t have much talent his first two seasons in Knoxville, and it was going to be a struggle for almost anyone, but did Barnes do anything groundbreaking (besides wear orange striped pants to a press conference) to raise their level of play in 2016 or 2017? I’m pretty sure Donnie Tyndall could’ve gone at least 31-35 during that two year span, which is exactly what Barnes did. Of course, Donnie also would’ve broken about 15 different NCAA rules just by waking up in the morning, but still.
The schedule won’t get any easier either. The SEC looks like a seven or eight bid league to the NCAA tournament this year, and Tennessee's next game is at home against a talented, but inconsistent, Kentucky team on Saturday night. An 0-3 start to conference play would be an absolute nightmarish way to begin what appeared to be a bounce back season for a program that went to four Sweet Sixteens in an eight year span from 2007-14. And if they do fall to UK, they’ll have a five game stretch of at Vanderbilt, home for #11 Texas A&M, at Missouri, at South Carolina, and home for Vanderbilt. All of those feel at least semi-losable, particularly considering how bad the last week has been.And if things do go completely sour, should we start speculating about Barnes’s job security? What if they go .500 again? Would no winning seasons in three tries be good enough for Barnes, who is 63 and assuredly on the wrong side of his coaching prime at this point, to get a fourth year? Remember, Phillip Fulmer is the “acting” athletic director now, and has no loyalty or ties to Barnes. Would he be interested in pursuing someone else? In all fairness, it’s probably too early at this point to be thinking about a coaching change, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on over the next couple of months, particualarly if the season starts to go into the toilet, which I think is an unfortunate real possibility.