By Charlie Chitwood,
Not to hurt Longview News-Journal Sports Editor Jack Stallard’s feelings, but is it possible we are seeing the basketball program at that other UT – The University of Tennessee – supplant the popularity of the football team?
My focus is far more on the Division II ranks, but when you look up and see the Vols at #1, you’re going notice. What in the name of Johnny Majors is going on here? The connection between the two UT’s (The University of Texas being the other) is Vol’s head coach Rick Barnes.
The veteran coach (winner of 680 games over 32 seasons) is having a career resurgence in Knoxville. His 17 years in Austin from 1998-2015 grew a little stale toward the end with his only losing season (16-18) coming near the wrong end of his run. The Longhorns’ best run came over three seasons, when Barnes led Texas to a 2003 Final Four appearance sandwiched between two Sweet 16 qualifiers.
Sugarland native D.J. Augustin was the star guard on the Elite Eight 2007-08 but that deep tournament run was Barnes’ last. In his last seven years in Austin, the Longhorns failed to survive the tournament’s first weekend even once. The grumbles were especially loud given his tournament record, where nine times in 16 trips, UT was upset by a lower-seeded team. So after the 2014-15 season ended, the four-time Big 12 Coach of the Year was done in Texas.
Women’s basketball was the bigger draw at Tennessee, where the legendary Pat Summitt gave the Vols fans something to cheer about after football season. Summitt’s teams only won eight National Championships in her career there and she was named the NCAA Coach of the Year seven times.
She was a dominant winner in the emerging collegiate woman’s sports programs and had a career and stature that couldn’t help but overshadow the men’s program until the Vols won and became a perennial tournament threat.
Tennessee thought it might have its man when Bruce Pearl took his first team to the Second Round and followed up with back-to-back Sweet 16’s. The Vols even reached the Elite Eight in 2010, but recruiting scandal derailed Pearl’s career until Auburn hired him in 2014 – AFTER the NCAA sanctions against Pearl expired.
Barnes’ start at Tennessee was inauspicious enough. His first team in 2015-2016 went 15-19 and the program only improved to .500 the following season. But last year the Vols caught fire at season’s end. Having already beaten Kentucky in Lexington, the Vols won six straight and were ranked 13th when they fell to the 4th-ranked Wildcats in the SEC Tournament Title Game.
The Vols earned a #3 seed regardless and easily handled Wright State in the opening round of NCAA Tournament play, but that upset-by-a-lower-seed bugaboo crept up in the Second Round. 11th-seed Loyola-Chicago – hardly a tournament regular – upset the Vols 63-62 and had Barnes wondering “why me?”
The follow-up season has been entertaining to say the least. The Vols were ranked 5th in the nation when they lost to 2nd-ranked Kansas in the NIT Season Tip-Off Classic back around Thanksgiving. Two weeks later, Barnes led the team to a 76-73 victory over then top-ranked Gonzaga and the wins just keep piling up.
Tennessee moved from #3 to #1 in time just in time for that close call in overtime at Vanderbilt, but the Vols have won handily twice since ahead of their date Feb 2 at Texas A&M.Barnes is hoping to keep that momentum going through the SEC Tournament and, maybe again, deep into the NCAA’s.
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