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Rick Barnes talks dealing with expectations, offseason work and getting better

Basketball is near.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Dallas Practice Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in several years, the Tennessee men’s basketball program is dealing with big time expectations. Rick Barnes has built this thing from the ground up, slowly but surely establishing a culture in Knoxville.

All of that progress began to show last season when the Vols split the regular season SEC title with Auburn, earning a trip to the SEC tournament final and a three seed in the NCAA Tournament.

That group is back for more, outside of reserve point guard James Daniel. How do you move on after a disappointing finish to the season? According to Barnes, you just start over like any other team.

“We really started that process a week and a half after the season ended,” Barnes said on Thursday. “We went in a room and talked about what we had done last year, now that’s over and done with. We’ve got to start over like every team in the country. We don’t get to start back where we finished.”

They don’t get to start back where they were. They actually get to start much higher, according to the admittedly meaningless preseason polls. This team won’t have the luxury of being motivated by being picked to finish 13th in the SEC.

“When you have that number — I don’t care if it’s 25 or 1 — it’s a big game. Our guys know that it’s hard to win in this league,” Barnes said. “The question will be, can we improve each day as much as we did a year ago. That’s our whole process. Can we get better today? We started that last spring and that was our goal. Can we get better today?”

So what exactly has Barnes and his staff done to get better? They’ve taken a somewhat different approach this summer, challenging specific players with different roles.

“This summer we wanted to make it uncomfortable for some guys,” Barnes said. “We felt like some guys were able to hide because we’ve got guys on our team that want every single rep that they can get. So we’ve been putting guys in different spots. It’s allowed us to put different lineups on the floor. We’ve played around with a lot of different lineups. Those have been fun, and I think you can do some of that with an older group of guys. That’s where being older and having some experience — you can do that. Especially if you have some players with basketball IQ, and we’ve got that.”

Analysts and college basketball fans know that this group is loaded. Tennessee has appeared in several top ten polls for this season, even landing inside of the top five in a few. The Vols are a trendy pick to make a deep run in the tournament, considering their experience and the return of Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams.

Internally, Barnes is doing everything he can to squash that outside noise.

“In terms of outside expectations, I can tell you, if they’re hearing it, they’re hearing a whole different story in practice. It’s the same story we talked about four years ago. It’s about us getting better.”

Tennessee will tip-off the 2018-19 season in Knoxville with an exhibition date against Tusculum on October 31st.