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Thoughts about Tennessee men’s basketball and what the future holds

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What the early exit means, and what it doesn’t mean.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round Indianapolis- Michigan at Tennessee Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Well, now that we’ve had a few days to digest it, I’m sure we all feel a lot better about Tennessee basketball’s 76-68 loss to the Michigan Wolverines in the Round of 32.

No? We still feel terrible about it? Ah. My apologies.

Maybe I’m just used to the March disappointments, but Tennessee’s loss truly did not shock me. It didn’t happen to the team I thought it would happen to, but a premature exit for the tournament was always at the forefront of our minds.

The truth of the matter is, no matter what seed Tennessee got, and no matter what team they were facing, the fanbase had lingering doubts about whether or not this team was able to buck the trend of recent squads. The SEC championship may have calmed some initial fears—but it still remained.

So here we are again, before the Sweet 16 round begins, thinking about what could’ve been and what we’re going to miss most about this team.

Here’s the good news: Tennessee returns a lot of their talent, even if we assume that Kennedy Chandler heads to the NBA (which I fully expect). Tennessee will still have key players like Santiago Vescovi, Josiah-Jordan James, Zakai Ziegler, and Uros Plavsic. They will also get Olivier Nkamhoua back from injury, who will pair nicely with a developing Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. The main starting five for next year is likely in the group of six players I just named.

But who’s to say that Tennessee won’t just rinse and repeat their results for the 2023 season? Honestly…no one. There’s no super elite player coming in (as of now) and it doesn’t seem like the Volunteers will be loading up for a 30-win season. They’ll probably be good—and that’s about it.

I know that some fans want a better answer, but that’s the truth. It’s also something to keep in mind when looking at failing programs across the country.

Head coach Rick Barnes occupies a very weird territory. Usually, people assign him into the “tournament choker” category. We all know the reputation they bring. High level results in the regular season, with shockingly bad collapses come March.

But I can’t help but notice something with Barnes and these past few Tennessee teams: Their tournament disappointments are not the dramatic failures that typically bring discussions of firing. Instead, their results tend to be just short of the expectation, leading to both a disappointment and enough hope to maintain optimism into the next season.

Put it this way: Tennessee does not expect a Final Four and get knocked out in the first round. They expect an Elite Eight and get knocked out in the Round of 32. For the latter, this is much harder to evaluate.*

* The only exception here is probably last year’s squad that lost in the first round to Oregon State.

Even in the one year that Tennessee was viewed as a strong Final Four contender (2019), they did manage to make it to the Sweet 16. Not where they wanted, but not bad enough to cause a serious riff. This is, apparently, the common theme of Barnes’ career. Both at Texas, and now at Tennessee. We have enough data to know that this is the way it happens: Tennessee will perform well in the regular season, but not good enough to give you serious hope that they make a deep tournament run. When they eventually fall short of the actual expectations, the cycle resets.

To be clear, I am not saying that Rick Barnes is solely to blame for those losses. In fact, you could argue that the Michigan game was one of his least fault-worthy yet. Tennessee’s players just couldn’t hit open threes. If they had managed an average outing from behind the arc, they would’ve won by double digits. If they produced a below average outing? Probably a close win.

Instead, they had a putrid day, going just 2-for-18 from 3-point range. There really isn’t much a coach can do when that happens. There were certainly some adjustments Barnes could’ve made, but ultimately I don’t think he had a bad game plan.

I’ve argued before that regular season results cannot be dismissed. They are a large sample size of how a team can perform, and the March tournament is a weird beast. Barnes has 100 percent succeeded in building up Tennessee to a basketball power in the SEC, and that’s true because of his regular season success. The Volunteers under his watch have been regular season SEC champions, SEC tournament champions, recorded a near .650 winning percentage, and maintained fantastic records against Tennessee’s rivals (notably, Kentucky and Florida). He’s also near .500 against top-25 ranked teams in his Tennessee career, and does having a winning record against them over the past four seasons. None of that is a fluke.

So if tournament results were the only thing that mattered, would Tennessee fans want to hire current Georgia Bulldogs head coach Mike White? He had more tournament wins in seven seasons at Florida than Barnes does in seven seasons at Tennessee.

The answer is obviously no. White’s failure to beat SEC and non-conference rivals meant he could not produce meaningful, tangible results. It also meant fans were constantly upset with him, despite his NCAA tournament success. I cite this because it leads into the conclusion that I feel get overlooked: Unless your team’s tournament run is a deep one, the difference is marginal. Appearing in a Sweet 16 is really not that different from appearing in the Round of 32, in the grand scheme of things. It makes more of a difference if you are consistently going to the Elite 8 or beyond.

All this to say: We can’t easily dismiss Barnes as an “average” coach. He is clearly not average. He gets results from his players, but those results just aren’t up to the expectations that his regular season results (and recruiting) suggest.

Some of this is just repeating what I’ve said for four years. But every time a result happens like Saturday, it’s a cruel reminder that the solution is not as easy as either (1) getting another coach or (2) totally committing to Barnes as the best coach the program can have.

Barnes has done enough to retire on his own terms at Tennessee. It’s weird to remember that an Elite 8 is the absolute furthest that Tennessee has ever gone in the NCAA tournament, and that the Volunteers historically are not even in the top-40 of win percentage by major schools. So not grabbing more titles is unfortunate, but it’s also not a wild departure from program history.

By most standards, Barnes is slightly above what Tennessee basketball has historically managed. His true value comes in the stabilization of the program.

Think of the turmoil that Tennessee went through with Bruce Pearl’s firing, the weird Cuonzo Martin saga, the short-lived Donnie Tyndall experiment, and eventually hiring Barnes. For a lot of programs, that would immediately make the job an unattractive option. Rather than suffer from the turmoil, Barnes went ahead and succeeded, and has brought Tennessee accomplishments they haven’t seen in three decades.

I wish Barnes was better in March. Everyone does. I wish just one of his teams would find a way to keep their momentum going through more than two rounds. I wish Barnes would be quicker to adjust when he sees his team failing to hit their usual marks. We all do. But until Barnes decides he wants to hang it up, that’s just the pill you have to swallow with him.

The minute his regular season results begin to drag, or his recruiting stalls out, or he starts losing internal control of his program, we can start a serious discussion of what comes next. But for now, enjoy what he can do, and just hope that he can find lightning in a bottle before he coaches his final game.