Rocky Topics: Has Rick Barnes’ first season at UT been a successful one?

On this edition of Rocky Topics, assistant sports editor Nathan Odom and staff writer Robert Hughes debate whether Rick Barnes’ first season at the helm on Rocky Top should be considered a success.

Thompson-Boling Arena. Photo courtesy of creativecommons.org. No changes made.

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Co-written by Robert Hughes

Odom: Yes, absolutely. Barnes has shown that he hasn’t lost the ability to coach while over-performing with a team built from the “Island of Misfit Basketball Players.” You’ve heard the lowdown, Robert. The Vols came into the season with one returning player taller than 6-foot-4 in Derek Reese, and he doesn’t count for much. Newcomers Ray Kasongo and Kyle Alexander were tall, but inexperienced. Kasongo wasn’t close to ready and Alexander played like a true freshman. Barnes has somehow managed to put this group within striking distance of a winning season — a remarkable feat when you consider all he was given.

Hughes: I say no. Although the team lacks talent, Derek Reese had never been a consistent contributor for the team in his previous three years, and the team desperately needed size. Armani Moore has been playing the “center” role this year, and he’s only 6-foot-4. Barnes should have implemented the 6-foot-9 Kyle Alexander much earlier in the season. You can’t expect to consistently compete with teams like Kentucky (who has 6-foot-8 Alex Poythress) and Vanderbilt (who has 7-foot-1 Luke Kornet) if your tallest starter is 6-foot-4. Moore plays with a lot of heart, but the Vols give up rebounds and points because Moore cannot size up to defenders who are six inches or taller than him. Barnes is compromising Tennessee’s ability to win games by not putting the team in position to score as many points as possible. I cannot deem his season successful because he hasn’t put Tennessee in the best situation to win.

Odom: This is your first year as a student at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Robert. Imagine if, after your first month or two on campus, you had to compete in a scholar’s bowl with seniors who had been at the school for 3+ years. Chances are, you wouldn’t fare too well. Not only was Alexander too immature to come in and fill the starting center role immediately, he isn’t quite bulky enough. Barnes wants Alexander to beef up a bit to be able to contend with more guys like Poythress and Kornet, who you mentioned. Despite all this, however, Barnes utilized this roster for wins over Florida and Kentucky — Tennessee’s two biggest basketball rivals — as well as knocking off then-No. 24 South Carolina. Try not to forget that the Vols just recently beat future NBA lottery pick Ben Simmons and LSU without leading scorer Kevin Punter. Barnes can coach, and he’s proving it by maneuvering a roster lacking in talent to an overachieving season.

Hughes: I understand it would be unrealistic for freshman Kyle Alexander to start immediately, but he didn’t make his first start until the Arkansas game, which was 23 games into the season. By that point, Alexander had over half a season under his belt. Attributing success to Barnes with wins over LSU, Kentucky and South Carolina is understandable. Those are three of the top five teams in the SEC, and Ben Simmons is one of the best players in the country. But how do you justify losses to Arkansas, Auburn and Missouri? None of those teams have a winning record. The team is inconsistent, and that’s a reflection of Barnes’ coaching. Losing due to a lack of talent is one thing, but when you prove you can beat teams that have more talent on their bench than you do on your entire roster and yet you still lose to the worst teams in your conference shows Barnes’ inability to consistently motivate his players. I would also like to point out that the team is 1-10 on the road. Successful teams win with or without a home-court advantage. I see success in the future for teams under Rick Barnes, but posting a losing season with experienced players like Kevin Punter and Armani Moore is unacceptable.

Edited by David Bradford

Featured image by Ben Ozburn

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Nathan is a junior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He spends most of his free time eating meaningless foods and watching sports. If you wish to contact Nathan, you can email him at wodom3@vols.utk.edu or find him on Twitter, @NathanOdom11.