The Tennessee men’s basketball team can’t play the disrespect card this season. The Vols can’t use perceived slights as added motivation.
One year after being picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC, the Vols are being touted as a team with Final Four potential.
Tennessee returns its top six scorers from a squad that finished 26-9 and captured a share of the SEC regular-season title.
Nearly every preseason poll has the Vols ranked near the very top, and nearly every analyst is praising their potential.
But if any UT players begin resting on their laurels, they won’t make it through a practice without a reality check.
“If complacency sets in, that’s my fault,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes explains. “I can assure you that’s not going to happen, because it’s up to me and my coaching staff. I think I have the best coaching staff in the country, and we’re not going to let that happen.”
Anchored by junior Grant Williams and senior Admiral Schofield, Tennessee opens the season on Nov. 6 against Barnes’ alma mater, Lenoir-Rhyne.
UT’s non-conference schedule includes games against Gonzaga, Georgia Tech, Memphis, West Virginia and Wake Forest. The Vols play Louisville in the NIT Season Tip-Off in Brooklyn, with a matchup against Kansas or Marquette awaiting in the second game.
The UT men’s and women’s programs will give fans an early glimpse of their teams on Oct. 19, when they host the Rocky Top Tip Off at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Coming off a breakout season under Barnes, the Vols want to showcase their staying power as a title-contending program.
Since arriving in 2015, Barnes has built Tennessee’s brand around fundamentals, work ethic and humility. He’s found the right mix of recruits who are willing to play with more grit than flash, and embrace team over individual.
“We think about going in every day and fighting for it,” says Williams, last year’s SEC Player of the Year. “Not only for ourselves, but also for our teammates. We have each other’s backs, and that is something we pride each other on. Being able to continually do that is huge for us.”
Although the Vols took pride in last season’s accomplishments, the ending left them unsatisfied and hungry for more.
UT lost 63-62 in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Loyola-Chicago, the tournament’s Cinderella story, which advanced to the Final Four.
Less than two weeks after their exit, the Vols held a meeting to put it behind them and begin focusing on the future. They’ve taken what they can learn from last season, but haven’t spent time living in the past.
“We start off the season 0-0 like everybody else, and the question will be, ‘Can we improve as much each day as we did a year ago?’” Barnes asks. “Really, our whole process that we talk about here is ‘can we get better today?’”
The Vols used their offseason workouts to develop players into more well-rounded options and create depth on the roster. They tinkered with different lineups and put players in uncomfortable positions to help facilitate growth.
The Vols realize the potential of the team and want to do everything possible to maximize the opportunity.
“I have no doubt in my mind that this year we will be way more consistent,” explains Schofield, who tested the NBA waters before deciding to return.
“This summer was the hardest summer to get a rim to just shoot a ball on because our whole team was in the gym the whole day. I would have to come in late at night just to get my extra work in because everyone has been putting in time. I think everyone’s urgency and everyone’s focus is being better than we were last year.”
Barnes was rewarded in the offseason for UT’s success with a contract extension and raise worth $21 million over the next six years. Valuing loyalty and cohesiveness, Barnes’ assistant coaches were also given raises.
“There’s a trust level that we have. Some of us have known each other now for 25 years,” adds Barnes, who committed a minor NCAA violation last year by giving an assistant coach money out of his own pocket to boost the assistant’s salary.
“I know that I count on them to hold me accountable. I think I’ve got a group of assistant coaches that are willing to do that if they think I’ve gone too far one way or another.”
Having a bigger target on their back is something Barnes wants his team to embrace. He says the constant challenge is what his players should crave to help bring out the best in them.
“I think it’s good when people know you’re good because that means you have to be able to play every night. And if you’re not, you’re going to get beat,” Barnes acknowledges.
“You’ll never hear me say, ‘This is what people on the outside think; they expect us to do this or that.’ Because believe me, our expectations are much bigger on the inside.”
With social media, TV and other outlets omnipresent in society, Barnes realizes he can’t shield his players from hearing the preseason praise, just like they couldn’t avoid hearing the doubters from last season.
Ensuring they can handle both is part of the maturation process in college. But if for some reason they show any signs of getting inflated egos, the Vols will have internal reminders to humble them quickly.
“If they’re hearing it, I can tell you that they’re hearing a whole different story in practice,” Barnes says. “It’s the same story that we talked about four years ago. It’s about us getting better, and that’s where we’ll keep it.”