The Tennessee Vols entered the 2020-21 season with high expectations.
Tennessee has plenty of talent on its roster (three five-star players), including one of the best defensive players in the nation in Yves Pons.
But despite the talent and experience, the Vols are on their way home after a 70-56 loss to Oregon State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The loss, while unexpected, wasn’t exactly a shocker. This is what the basketball program has become under Rick Barnes.
Tennessee is a consistently good team, but they’ve reached their ceiling under Barnes.
In six years as the Vols’ head coach, Barnes has reached three NCAA Tournaments (last year’s tourney was canceled, but UT likely would’ve missed the tourney with a 17-14 record). The furthest Tennessee has advanced in the tourney under Barnes is the Sweet 16 in 2018-19.
This is essentially what Barnes did at Texas — consistently decent teams that could never make any noise in March.
Barnes will be 67 next season. This is who he is as a coach. He’s not suddenly going to become a coach that leads Tennessee to Final Fours. Expecting that from Barnes would be unwise at this point. The Vols’ ceiling under Barnes is the Sweet 16 (until proven otherwise).
Now, is that good enough at Tennessee?
That’s up for debate.
There are plenty of fans who seem to feel like putting a decent product on the court is good enough. Those same fans, however, seem to have higher expectations for a football program that hasn’t been relevant in almost 15 years. I don’t understand why the football program has higher expectations than the basketball program, but I digress.
Tennessee can be among the elite programs in college basketball. Barnes has proved that elite talent will come to Knoxville.
And Alabama proved this season that a coach can make a huge difference in a short amount of time. Nate Oats has completely turned Bama’s program around. And he has an SEC Tournament championship in just his second season as Alabama’s head coach.
Barnes has zero SEC Tournament championships on his resume (in fact, Barnes hasn’t won a conference tournament since 1994 at Providence).
Moving forward, Tennessee has to decide whether or not a “solid” regular season with an NCAA Tournament appearance is their goal. Or do the Vols want to win an SEC Tournament championship and make a Final Four run?
If the goal is a conference championship and a Final Four run, then Barnes isn’t the guy who should be leading the program.
But if the status quo is good enough — simply being a fringe top 25 team — then Barnes is the guy. Because that’s what Tennessee is going to continue to get if Barnes is the leader of the program.
UT’s basketball program is at a major crossroads right now. They can either set their sights higher or accept mediocrity.
The ball is in Danny White’s court.
Featured image via IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports