Tennessee basketball is understandably fired up after an emphatic victory over the No. 4 ranked Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday. It wasn’t just a win—it was a total beatdown. The Volunteers got even with the Wildcats after Kentucky handed them a similar loss just two weeks prior.
It is a rare feeling to not perceive yourself as the underdog to Kentucky. Yet for the past couple of seasons, that has been the reality for Tennessee basketball. Rick Barnes has brought the program into a new era, topped with No. 1 rankings and euphoric victories over hated rivals.
It is safe to say that the 2018-2019 season has been very nice to Tennessee on that end. The Volunteers swept Florida, beat Alabama, beat Memphis, beat Vanderbilt, and evened up with Kentucky. That’s almost a perfect result. The season isn’t over, so some of those numbers might change in the SEC tournament, but at this point it doesn’t truly matter. Tennessee ran through the regular season and has set themselves up for a great tournament seed.
We decided to take a look at the past few decades of Tennessee basketball and how Barnes has stacked up in regards to beating his rivals. The order of rivalries for Tennessee basketball is a bit different than football, but the main characters are still the same.
Below, we assembled the first four-year records against Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Alabama, and Memphis in the past two decades. Since Barnes has been head coach for four years, we restricted it to the first four years of each coach, in order to give a fair comparison. A coach had to be at Tennessee for more than one season to qualify (sorry Donnie). We put the cutoff at Jerry Green, to ensure that we capture the most relevant era of Tennessee basketball.
Jerry Green (1997-2001)
Florida: 1-1, 1-1, 2-0, 0-2 (4-4)
Kentucky: 0-2, 2-0, 1-1, 0-2 (3-5)
Vanderbilt: 1-1, 2-0, 0-2, 2-0 (5-3)
Alabama: 1-0, 1-0, 0-1, 1-0 (3-1)
Memphis: 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0 (4-0)
Total: 19-13 (.593)
Buzz Peterson (2001-2005)
Florida: 0-2, 1-1, 1-1, 1-1 (3-5)
Kentucky: 1-1, 0-2, 0-2, 0-3 (1-8)
Vanderbilt: 1-1, 2-0, 1-1, 0-2 (4-4)
Alabama: 0-2, 0-1, 0-2, 0-1 (0-6)
Memphis: 0-1 (0-1)
Total: 8-24 (.250)
Bruce Pearl (2005-2009)
Florida: 2-0, 1-1, 2-0, 2-0 (7-1)
Kentucky: 1-1, 1-1, 1-1, 0-2 (3-5)
Vanderbilt: 2-0, 1-1, 1-1, 2-0 (6-2)
Alabama: 0-1, 1-0, 1-0, 1-1 (3-2)
Memphis: 0-1, 1-0, 1-0, 0-1 (2-2)
Total: 21-12 (.636)
Cuonzo Martin (2011-2014)
Florida: 2-0, 1-0, 0-3 (3-3)
Kentucky: 0-2, 1-1, 0-1 (1-4)
Vanderbilt: 1-1, 2-0, 1-1 (4-2)
Alabama: 0-1, 1-2, 1-0 (2-3)
Memphis: 0-2, 0-1 (0-3)
Total: 10-15 (.400)
Rick Barnes (2015-2019)
Florida: 1-0, 0-1, 1-0, 2-0 (4-1)
Kentucky: 1-1, 1-1, 2-1, 1-1 (5-4)
Vanderbilt: 1-2, 1-1, 2-0, 2-0 (6-3)
Alabama: 0-1, 1-0, 0-1, 1-0 (2-2)
Memphis: 1-0 (1-0)
Total: 18-10 (.642)
Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes are in a league of their own. No other coaches had as much success against rivals as those two did in their first four years. The only one close was Jerry Green, whose final year was considered a major disappointment that ultimately led to him getting fired.
Do you like beating Florida? Then the Pearl/Barnes eras are probably your favorite memories. In eight years, those two combined for an 11-2 record against the Gators. Keep in mind that Florida was no slouch during those stretches either. In fact, Florida was ranked in the top-10 three different times against Pearl. He won two of those games. Barnes has faced a relatively easier matchup, but maintaining that record is still impressive.
Alabama has oddly been a thorn in Tennessee’s side. They are probably the least hated of the basketball rivals, yet their records against Tennessee raise some eyebrows. Even Barnes and Pearl have trouble dispatching the Crimson Tide.
It’s the record against Kentucky that sets Barnes apart from the rest. Of the five coaches, Barnes is the only one who maintained a winning record against Kentucky in his first four years. Eight of those nine matchups were against a ranked Wildcats team. Considering that Kentucky is one of the premier programs in the sport, and the fact that they are Tennessee’s biggest rival on the hardwood, that is a huge leverage point for Barnes. He’s gone toe-to-toe with the monster of the SEC and come out as the victor.
In addition to fan enjoyment, that presumably has some effect on recruiting. Look at the list of visitors from Saturday’s game and where they rank in their respective classes. Think the atmosphere and victory may have given them something to chew on?
All Bark No Bite?
This might be a cheap shot, but Vanderbilt’s results against Tennessee do not appear as good as you might have thought. The Commodores did not hold a winning record against any of the Tennessee coaches listed in their first four years. The closest they came was against Buzz Peterson, but he still drew even with them. Of all the major rivals, it would seem Vanderbilt (14-25) and Florida (14-21) are battling for the worst results against Tennessee.