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Exploring the ceiling of Rick Barnes at Tennessee

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This season’s ending was rough. How much blame can be put on Barnes?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Iowa vs Tennessee Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s a fun exercise for evaluating a sports team. Imagine if someone approached you the day before it started and asked you what the minimum result would be for you to be satisfied. For Tennessee basketball, entering the year with a No. 6 ranking meant the expectations were fairly high. Most would agree that Elite Eight was a very realistic goal, though a Sweet Sixteen appearance would not be a failure. Showing some sort of improvement from the previous season was essential. A Final Four—or even a championship appearance—were also on the table.

Yet here we are, sulking in misery two weeks after an overtime loss to a 3-seed, thanks in part to a bogus call. There’s still a Sweet Sixteen appearance and 7-1 record against your biggest rivals. In the context of the Tennessee basketball program, that is a very successful season.

I’m not here to convince anyone that the ending to the season was not terrible. It was. But at the same time, the season did meet a lot of benchmarks that made it an overall win. Yet Rick Barnes is receiving plenty of heat for not reaching the ceiling that everyone witnessed for months. Not a lot of teams in sports actually do. For Tennessee fans however, that especially stings.

Is the criticism of Rick Barnes justified? Are fans correct in wanting more, and should the onus fall on Barnes for how the season ended?

The simple fact is that Barnes has not made the Elite Eight in over a decade, and he hasn’t made the Final Four in over 15 years. In his past 20 seasons, Barnes has finished in the first two rounds 11 times. He has finished at the Sweet 16 three times. Just one season saw him miss the NCAA tournament altogether.

There are a lot worse situations to be in. Tennessee basketball still competes in a tough conference with plenty of talented teams. Getting into the tournament is not automatic, and the three year stretch after Cuonzo Martin’s departure is a reminder of how fast the situation can change.

This is where Barnes’ greatest strength resides. He is consistently raising the talent level at Tennessee, and the results at Texas show how stable of a program he produces. Despite all the disappointment of the 2018-2019 conclusion, pretty much everyone agrees that Tennessee will be a tournament team next year. As long as Barnes is actually putting in effort, that won’t change. Tennessee basketball will be good every year and they are almost guaranteed to be dancing in March.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Iowa vs Tennessee Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

What remains is the most excruciating question of Barnes as a head coach: What is the actual ceiling?

To this question, I’m going to propose a different type of answer: Barnes doesn’t have a strict ceiling. He certainly hits a roadblock in the Round of 32, but Barnes has the ability to make it to that final group of teams. Largely because of the same talent which brings him consistent results. His recruiting at Texas almost never dipped below a top-15 level, and his recruiting at Tennessee is finally beginning to catch up to the results. 5-star combo guard Josiah James being the best example of that development.

It’s also encouraging how Barnes has developed the lower rated recruits. Jordan Bone, Grant Williams, Jordan Bowden, Admiral Schofield, Lamonte Turner, and Kyle Alexander were all 3-stars. That was the core of the group that led Tennessee to one of their best seasons in program history, and only two of those have left. Going in to 2019, Tennessee will have two blue-chips who still haven’t seen major minutes due to veterans in front of them : 4-star center D.J. Burns and 4-star forward Yves Pons. Add in 5-star Josiah James, and that depth and experience are the biggest reasons why most expect the Volunteers to return to the NCAA tournament.

But in terms of coaching acumen, Barnes falls short in certain regards, hence why the talent is essential to bail him out every once in a while. His inability to maintain an effective scoring rotation seriously hampered Tennessee down the back half of 2018-2019, to the point where they had draining halftime battles with Iowa and Purdue in the NCAA tournament. It made no sense how the Volunteers couldn’t space out their main scoring options.

Add in defensive lapses and nonsensical set pieces, and it’s obvious that Barnes is missing the ingredient which allows coaches like Bruce Pearl or Tom Izzo to consistently get past the first two rounds. Hence why the recruiting and development is the absolute most important thing Barnes can bring to the table. It’s not the greatest praise upon a coach, but it’s the fact of the matter. Barnes needs that talent to fill the gaps in his coaching.

If you’re still not sold on Barnes as the right coach for Tennessee, and you still think Tennessee can do better on the market, then take solace in the fact that he’s on the backend of his career and will probably start thinking of retirement in the next few years. I doubt he’s the head coach for longer than the next six years. Then, you might get your wish to upgrade from a coach who just went 31-6.

Expect more, and hold Tennessee to a high standard when warranted. But be careful what you wish for. Remember that greed can be a nasty poison that sucks away your enjoyment of what you already have.