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Rick Barnes talks Oregon State loss

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oregon State at Tennessee IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

Just like Tennessee’s entire season, the Volunteers delivered an underwhelming performance in the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee fell to 12th-seeded Oregon State on Friday afternoon, coming out flat and ice cold from three-point range.

John Fulkerson was unable to play, but the Vols failed to show that intensity that we saw flashes up last weekend in the SEC Tournament. Energy was non-existent, shots weren’t falling — this one quite honestly felt over midway through the first half after the Beavers took control with a 27-11 lead.

“They were certainly packed back in there daring us to make threes or take shots, and we had some looks, but it didn’t go down,” Rick Barnes said after the loss. “Didn’t get much on the offensive boards the way we needed to, but overall, give them credit for it. Disappointed that I didn’t think we played our best basketball. It’s hard to play this game when the ball’s not going in and when you don’t have an inside presence.”

Tennessee began 0-8 from three-point range and finished with a dreadful 5-26 mark. Barnes is correct — Oregon State was daring Tennessee to beat them from long range, but nothing would fall. Josiah-Jordan James finished 0-5, Victor Bailey was 1-9 and Santiago Vescovi went 3-8. We knew that if John Fulkerson couldn’t play, Tennessee was going to have to make some shots. That didn’t happen.

Going beyond that though was Tennessee’s lack of energy. They seemed tight and unprepared for the moment, which was the exact opposite of the attitude we saw in Nashville.

“I was really surprised, the freshmen especially,” Barnes said. “They looked like being here in the NCAA Tournament is something they’ve grown up watching. They were out of character in terms of, yeah, you could tell that they were skittish. There’s no doubt about it. They were picking up some fouls there early that hurt us. We just did some things offensively to start the game where we just weren’t synced up together, and, again, I told — actually, during the time-out, I said, look, we can’t be afraid to play basketball now. We’ve got to play together, stay together.”

By the time Tennessee’s intensity picked up, it was too late. Oregon State had pushed the lead to 20, and the Vols didn’t have much of an answer for big man Roman Silva. Jarod Lucas, Ethan Thompson and Zach Reichle each played efficient games, helping lift the Beavers to 10-21 shooting from the three-point line. That near 50 percent mark compared to Tennessee’s 19.7 percent was the difference in the game.

We’re left with more questions than answers after this season. What exactly happened to this group that returned two potential All-SEC performers and added two potential NBA lottery picks? You can use COVID as an excuse, but every team in the country had to deal with it.

Fact is, this teams never seemed to come together on the court, and something always seemed to be missing.

“We’ve got to have an inside presence,” Barnes said of potential roster changes going into next season. “We’ve never (not) had some kind of an inside presence. We didn’t have any at all today. We’ve got to change — again, going forward, we’ve got to get back to having an inside presence the way that we play and the way that we want to play.”

Fulkerson, Pons, Nkamhoua, Plavsic — none delivered a consistent post game. That’s a clear need this offseason for Barnes to address, with Pons and Fulkerson seemingly leaning towards moving on. Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer are likely also to move on. With Kennedy Chandler and Jahmai Mashack entering the program, adding post players becomes the priority for Barnes.

Barnes’ seat in Knoxville isn’t hot. Fans are rightfully frustrated, but most realize what he’s done for this program. The problem is his fat $5 million per year contract — thanks to his flirtation with UCLA — which places big expectations and pressure on his shoulders. With that deal not going anywhere, Barnes has to find a way to bounce back next season. Once again, he won’t be short on talent, but as we saw this year, that doesn’t mean everything.

Eventually, Barnes was let go by Texas for coming up empty in March. So far in Knoxville, a similar story is playing out. Can he write a different ending this time around?