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Mouse trap: Trusting Rick Barnes and Tennessee basketball in 2023

Tennessee hoops are at a fever pitch, but are they answering the questions?

Syndication: Tuscaloosa News Gary Cosby Jr. / USA TODAY NETWORK

When a mouse exits its home in the foundation of a house, it’s in search of food, completely blind to the threats around it at first. A newly moved in family, unaware to the mouse’s existence, is oblivious. The mouse collects its scraps, and scurries its way back home. But when the mouse exits the hole again, the family is in the kitchen, and they spot it. Now the mouse knows what it’s up against, but it doesn’t dissuade it from trying again.

A trap is set. Cheese is laid out as bait. The mouse returns. SPLAT goes the trap, right on its tail. The mouse is able to pull free, but not without scars. The family sees the trap was sprung, but no mouse. A new trap is set, stronger this time, but once again, the mouse gets away, new scars now on its back. A stronger trap is set once again, and while the mouse is still returning home with more scars than cheese, it’s determined to come back the next day as the cycle continues.

The experience that is Tennessee basketball is no different.

Since Pat Summitt took over with the Lady Vols, their dominance was second to none. However, it took a very long time for the men’s program to take a hint and realize there is more to men’s athletics than football. Between 1989 and 1998, Tennessee didn’t even make an NCAA Tournament. It wasn’t until the near turn of the century under Jerry Green that the program made consecutive trips to the dance for the first time since the early ‘80’s.

The Bruce Pearl years were the years your friend talks about in college where they spent all their time partying. Times were great! Recruiting had never been as good as then! Teams were better than ever! Vibes? Immaculate! Oh, how the flame dies, though. Now your friend is regretful, wishing they spent more time paying attention in class and not partying. Those years are the allegations, the scandals, the sanctions. The effects were felt for years, long after the memories withered.

Tennessee tasked Cuonzo Martin with picking up the pieces and attempting to keep the momentum going. Martin had done an admirable job turning around Missouri State. The promise was there, but by year three, while he raised the floor, Martin couldn’t break through that invisible ceiling looming over the program. Only Pearl could do it, but it came with a cost. Martin took an 11-seed Volunteer squad to the Sweet Sixteen where they ultimately fell to Michigan, a familiar ghost that haunts Tennessee. Fans, unhappy with the trajectory of Martin’s tenure, started a petition that grew quickly to re-hire Bruce Pearl as his show-cause ban was set to run out. While Martin deserved better, it was clear this pairing was fractured.

The easily-forgettable-if-not-for-the-paper-trail-that-followed-him season under Donnie Tyndall came in 2014-15 and abruptly ended when Tyndall’s violations at Southern Miss netted him a 10 year show-cause penalty. Once again, they’re looking for a coach down on Rocky Top.

The Rick Barnes Era

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Championship-Iowa State vs Texas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Barnes had just spent 17 seasons as the head coach at Texas where his Longhorns teams reached the NCAA Tournament 16 times. It was a perfect marriage for almost 20 years, but the reason Barnes was let go of by Texas largely was the reason he fit perfectly, in an odd kind of way, at Tennessee. From 2001-02 to 2007-08, Barnes’ Texas teams reached the Sweet Sixteen five times and the Elite Eight in two of those trips. However, over the next seven seasons, they failed to make it out of the first weekend, and Texas saw it best for them if they went their separate ways. Texas brought in Shaka Smart, Tennessee brought in Rick Barnes.

Rick Barnes hedged what were supposed to be a rough first few years at Tennessee because he’s a master developer of talent, and between his defensive style and the staff he had put together, they’ve set this program up for tremendous sustained success moving forward that this program has never seen. Tennessee basketball has never been like this, yet the bug that Barnes caught late in his tenure at Texas has followed him to Knoxville.

At this point, I’m going to welcome in a diehard Vols fan and big contributor to Rocky Top Talk, Nick Carner.

“At this point, you’ve gotta be doing some mental gymnastics to not see Barnes’ issues come tournament time. I mean, right?”

It’s unfortunately true. Since Barnes has taken over for the Vols, they’ve seen a stretch of regular season success that only the Pearl years could rival.

However, Barnes’ old nemesis, the Round of 32, continues to stand in his way. As it stands, between Austin and Knoxville, Rick Barnes-led teams have reached a single Sweet Sixteen in his last 10 appearances. That lone appearance was in 2019 when Barnes’ Vols squad fell to Purdue. Instead of Elite Eight’s to hang our hats on, we’ve been left with what-if’s.

“What if Lamonte Turner didn’t get called for that foul against Purdue’s Carsen Edwards when Tennessee was up two points with fewer than three seconds left in the Sweet Sixteen matchup in 2019? What if Ryan Cline, who averaged 12 points per-game that year, doesn’t hit 70-percent of the threes he shot (7-of-10)?”

“He [Barnes] didn’t shoot 2-18 from deep against Michigan last year, either. You can perhaps blame his roster construction, partially, for Tennessee having no answer for Hunter Dickinson inside, but had Nkamhoua not gone down with the ankle injury last year, maybe that game would have turned out different...At the end of the day, the blame falls on the coach...It’s a thing now, and it will continue to be a thing until it isn’t anymore. Somebody call John Constantine, because there’s a demon that needs exorcising.”

Nick hits the nail on the head on everything there. It truly is a curse, but it’s a curse of Barnes’ own making. His teams historically have struggled making adjustments when necessary in big games, and though last year, especially in the SEC Tournament, it looked as if he had actually bucked that trend, the Michigan game happened again. Barnes not having any semblance of an inside threat left his ice cold guards on an island with no confidence late in that game, and Dickinson feasted inside. No adjustment can make up for a roster not built to win that way.

Cause for Concern

Just taking a look at the 2022-23 roster, there isn’t much difference from last year’s squad which had been a cause for concern initially. Among players who logged at least 30% of minutes played, only Kennedy Chandler (NBA), John Fulkerson (sadly ran out of eligibility), and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield (Louisville) are no longer on the team. The additions of Tyreke Key (Indiana State), freshman Julian Phillips have cushioned the blow of losing KC and Fulkerson, but there’s still a worry around the lack of a true point guard and depth inside.

While we’ve yet to see how the lack of a point guard will hurt Tennessee in SEC play—opening with Ole Miss, Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt aren’t going to test that—it’s still a vital concern. It doesn’t appear that four-star freshman, BJ Edwards, is going to be checking in for contributing minutes at point guard either, so that load falls solely on Zakai Zeigler and Tyreke Key this season.

Back to Nick:

“Everybody who has been around this blog the last few years knows I’m the site’s cynic. And I don’t disagree. Maybe I’m too concerned about the absence of a PG not named Zakai...Zeigler is the only player on the team that resembles a “true” point guard, and that’s an issue. I’ve known this would be a problem since last year’s and this year’s NCAA leader in total assists, St. Louis’ Yuri Collins, ended up staying there instead of coming to Tennessee amidst tampering allegations.

Zeigler seems to be progressing as the team’s go-to ball-handler/offensive initiator/finder of guys to pass to who end up scoring. He’s had 10, eight, and nine assists in his last three games, but opposing teams know Tennessee lacks initiators, and Zeigler isn’t going to be able to dribble his way outta traps all the time like he did against Vandy. Passing is the way to beat traps — not dribbling.”

It’s safe to say it’s full wait and see mode with the point guard play as we move deeper into SEC play. Zeigler will get his first big challenge this weekend against Kentucky.

Reasons for Hope

We know what’s the same, so what’s different? In terms of depth, there’s been two big risers who were on the roster a season ago that have carved out a more prominent role within this year’s team. Firstly, is guard Jahmai Mashack. Mashack is quite possibly the best on-ball defender in all of college basketball, and that’s saying something considering he plays on the same team as Zakai Zeigler. With Tennessee being able to employ a smaller lineup at times during the season now that Olivier Nkamhoua is back and healthy, it allows Mashack to spell more of the team’s lineup.

Similar to Zeigler a season ago, Mashack’s presence off the bench creates an immediate energy spark defensively, and as we all know, Tennessee’s offense is driven by its defense. Just how much of a spark is he? Per Evan Miyakawa, Tennessee’s small ball bench lineup of Zeigler-Vescovi-Mashack-Phillips-Aidoo is the single most efficient five-man lineup in the country with at least 30 possessions played. That lineup’s adjusted team defensive efficiency of 22.0 is +18.6 clear of the next closest lineup. Now, this isn’t to say Mashack should be starting, but to have that level of impact off the bench defensively is not something many teams have, if any.

The other Vol who has played perhaps the biggest role in making this team better than a season ago is Jonas Aidoo. The 6-foot-11 sophomore has essentially slipped into the Brandon Huntley-Hatfield role from a season ago, but he’s been much better.

Aidoo is this team’s only big contributor that’s a rim protector, and he’s quite good at that. Per Bart Torvik, Aidoo ranks as his top defensive player in the country, and he’s third per Evan Miyakawa. His 8.9% block rate ranks top-40 in the country, and thus far in conference play, that mark is up to 11.7%. On the offensive end, what’s briefly hinted at in the two graphs above is how Aidoo’s range extends a defense. When Huntley-Hatfield was on the court at the same time as Uros, which was Tennessee’s second-most frequent lineup after Nkamhoua went down, the Vols just had three guards who could extend the floor, and with two bigs who weren’t perimeter threats allowing defenses to clog the paint, it made life rough for drive-and-kick opportunities.

With Aidoo, much of his production comes around the rim as expected, but his midrange game towards the top of the key in that 10-15 foot range has proven useful, and even flashing a respectable three-point shot has forced a defender to at least honor the jumper and have to come out to guard him. That action alone makes a pick-and-roll game much more effective as well as clearing up the driving lanes.

Now for the newcomers. We briefly touched on the newly minted Vols, Tyreke Key and Julian Phillips, but it’s Phillips who has quickly become one of the country’s more underrated players, and it all starts with his defense. Bringing Jonas Aidoo back into this for a brief second, the combo of Phillips and Aidoo lead all college basketball tandems in adjusted team efficiency margin, per Evan Miyakawa, at 43.4.

Once Phillips finds his footing on the offensive end, Tennessee is going to be very hard to stop.

“Sometimes, he’s like a dog chasing its tail in the sense that he gets to the rim without any real plan of what he’s going to do once he’s there. In high school, that wasn’t a problem. So, ideally, by the time March rolls around, Phillips has found his sea legs and can be a legitimate threat to get to the hoop, score, draw fouls, and goodness gracious maybe even rack up some assists when other guys cut to the basket as the defense rotates.”

Nick touches on something that Phillips has been better at of late, and that’s attacking the rim with a plan. He’s played very efficiently offensively in SEC play. His 140.2 offensive rating in conference play per KenPom ranks third in the SEC (behind Vandy’s Liam Robbins and Santiago Vescovi), but only recently has be really begun seeking his shot. Against Vanderbilt, Phillips was attacking the hoop and getting to the line, and like Nick said, it opened up passing lanes for cutters, something this team does so well. His 15 points against Vandy are his most against a power conference team since his 25 point explosion against USC in November. Could we be on the cusp of a breakout?

Santiago Vescovi is back and doing Santi things again. There’s not much to say about him. He’s just that dude.

Josiah-Jordan James’ health has been a concern to start the year, but what it initially appeared to be just seems to have been an early scare. His minutes are increasing with every passing game. Soon enough, he may be back to full strength.

Olivier Nkamhoua is back and healthy, and what he brings to this team just might be what sets this team over the top. Nkamhoua is the straw that stirs the drink for the overall success of this team. He stretches the floor as a 6-foot-8 big man and currently ranks within the top-100 in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, and defensively he lets this team play small and run switches off most screens. His ankle injury last season proved costly when Michigan exploited Tennessee’s lack of depth and skill inside, but with Nkamhoua back and playing as well as he has in Knoxville, the sky could be the limit.

In Conclusion

Should you trust this team? Quite frankly we should know better, this is a Tennessee sports team after all, but that’s the beauty of it and of this squad. Just because we should know better doesn’t mean we’ll listen to better judgment. Just like the mouse who wants the cheese even though it knows the trap could be its demise, it’ll never stop it from trying. That’s the life of a Tennessee sports fan, but especially basketball.

This team is better than a year ago, and the team a year ago won the program’s first SEC Tournament since 1979. The growing pains of the the youth with Phillips are getting worked out, and with one of the most experienced teams in the conference and country overall, if Rick Barnes were ever to get over the hump, this is the team that’s going to do it. So yes, believe in this group because even if it ends up the same as it always has, they’ll make every second worth it.