The Tennessee men's basketball team made a tremendous statement on Sunday afternoon when they knocked off top-ranked Gonzaga 76-73 on a neutral court in Phoenix, Arizona. The Vols were supposed to be really good this season. The defending SEC Champions were tabbed to finish second in the league in the pre-season poll of media members, but what do they know. Tennessee's only loss so far is a close loss to then second ranked Kansas, the team that is now ranked number one.
How did the Volunteers pull off the upset of the Bulldogs? Well, it doesn't hurt at all when your senior leader scores a career high thirty points.
Admiral Schofield scored twenty-five in the second half leading his team to their seventh win in eight games so far this season. Coach Rick Barnes hasn't does this with smoke and mirrors. The man can flat out coach. None of his starters were five star national recruits. He has simply developed his talent and made them into a winning college basketball machine. He has also done it with a smothering defense-one that held usually high scoring Gonzaga to twenty-three points below their season average.
When then athletic director Dave Hart hired Rick Barnes after he was dismissed from Texas, the general feeling was, "Oh well. We've hired another washed-up guy who at one one time was a very successful coach." Barnes' tenure at Tennessee didn't exactly get off to a roaring start. His first team in Knoxville finished 15-19 and failed to make the post-season. In his second season, their was a little improvement as the Vols finished 15-15. But in Barnes' third season Tennessee the Vols broke through with a 26-9 mark and won the SEC Championship. That record which featured the school's fourth most wins in history gave Tennessee fans something to hang their hats on, because the football team had just completed its worst season ever.
Even though current athletic director Phillip Fulmer didn't hire Rick Barnes, he certainly has the utmost respect for him. When I ran into Coach Fulmer back in the summer, I asked him about his feelings toward new head football coach Jeremy Pruitt. He told me, " I really like our new football coach, but I love our basketball coach."
I hadn't given a thought about basketball, but Coach Fulmer readily offered his impression of Rick Barnes and the job he was doing. Barnes has been giving Tennessee fans a lot to feel good about with his basketball team. I recently saw some Facebook posts that posed the question, "Is Tennessee now a basketball school?" To be totally honest, Tennessee has always been a basketball school. Starting with Ray Mears, Don Devoe, Jerry Green, Bruce Pearl, Cuonzo Martin and now Rick Barnes, The Volunteers are consistently ranked in the top 15 in college basketball attendance and still rank in the top five in SEC wins. That doesn't include the amazing record of the late Pat Summitt and her Lady Vols, with eight NCAA titles.
The bottom line is this; Tennessee is a very good college basketball team with a hall of fame coach. The statement they made with a win over Gonzaga two days ago tells us they intend to make a long successful run in the NCAA Tournament in March. Let's enjoy this for what it is.
* * *
Randy Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org