Just when you thought the Tennessee Volunteers had received a wake up call and righted the ship so to speak, they get another wake up call. When the Vols lost at home to a good South Carolina team on January 30th, they jumped all over Kentucky on February 3rd and beat the Wildcats in Rupp Arena. They next scored a 20 point win over LSU at home and things seemed to be headed in the right direction. The Volunteers were ranked sixth in the country and there was a lot of talk about them even being a number one seed for the NCAA Tournament.
And then....they lost at Texas A&M by 16 points in a game they were never really in. It could have been a lot worse than 16 points.
This pattern keeps playing out over and over again. The Vols look as good as any team in the country and then they try to sleep walk through an unranked opponent. On Saturday night, the Vols had no answer for the Texas A&M guards who sliced them up time after time with easy layups. And when the Aggies decided to step outside the arc, they hit 11 of 28 three pointers. It was a total butt whipping and Tennessee looked nothing like a team that could win a national championship.
How much blame should be heaped upon head coach Rick Barnes? Well, the buck stops at the top. Now....don't get me wrong. I love Coach Barnes. He has been just what the Vols needed to bring excitement back to Rocky Top but it's time the players need to step up and avoid the letdowns and yes....even melt downs that keep occurring. We all thought we had found the answer when Dalton Knecht came onboard. He's a big-time scorer who did his best to bring the Vols back against the Aggies. He led the Vols in points with 22 and in rebounds with 7. He hit 6 of 11 from behind the arc and all that came in just 28 minutes of action because he spent a lot of time on the bench in foul trouble. Zakai Zeigler was the only other Vol in double figures with 15. Some players wearing the orange jersey simply disappeared. Santiago Vescovi scored a mere 5 points in 30 minutes and Jonas Aidoo had just 6 points and 5 rebounds.
Is there enough talent on this team to win a national title? Yes, but you have to wonder about how much heart this team has. Rick Barnes hasn't played a minute this year. He hasn't missed a layup or taken a bad shot at all. His job as head coach is to get his team ready to play each and every game and for some reason that's not happening. This situation reminds me of when Jerry Green was the Vols' head coach. Green coached four years and never won fewer than 20 games per year. His record at Tennessee was 89-36 and he took the Vols to the NCAA Tournament every year, even one trip to the "Sweet 16." It's very similar to Coach Barnes' tenure at Tennessee. Neither coach could take their team to the next level.
Rick Barnes is one of the best college basketball coaches of all time. He's the second winningest active coach in the country and he's as respected as any coach in the game. The knock on him is....he has never won a national title. This team is good enough to accomplish that feat, but the Volunteers need to finally wake up and stay awake for the rest of the season.
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Randy Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.