Barnes raising: Vols off to best start in seven years

Jeff Birchfield • Dec 6, 2017 at 12:26 PM

When the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball preseason poll came out, Tennessee was picked 13th out of the 14 teams, ahead of only LSU with first-year coach Will Wade.

While the Vols are yet to start league play, they certainly don’t look like the second-to-worst team in the SEC. In fact, the Vols finally got national recognition earlier this week after a 6-1 start, their best since the 2010-11 season.

It was announced Monday that Tennessee was ranked No. 24 in the latest Associated Press poll, the first time since 2010 when Bruce Pearl was head coach and current ETSU coach Steve Forbes was an assistant that the Vols are ranked. It comes off a second straight win over an ACC team this season, a 67-60 win over on the road at Georgia Tech.

Sophomore guard Lamonte Turner tied a career-high with 24 points and the Vols as a team hit 17 of 19 free throws.

“With Admiral (Schofield) and Grant (Williams) being in foul trouble, I think Lamonte’s experience was really huge,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “He had that look where he had great command of himself and what he needed to get done. When you’re trying to build on the road and learn to win on the road, you’re going to need some players make plays. Then down the stretch we did a great job as a team making free throws.”

Defending champs coming to town

There was more good news for Tennessee Monday when it was announced the Dec. 17 home game against defending national champion North Carolina was sold out. The Vols came up just short on an upset bid, 73-71, against then the No. 7 ranked Tar Heels last December in Chapel Hill.

Barnes has a 6-6 career coaching record against Carolina’s Roy Williams.

Going after championship pedigree

He almost got another win against a national championship coach in Villanova’s Jay Wright back on Nov. 23 at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.

Tennessee had a 12-point halftime lead, but it quickly slipped away in the second half in an 85-76 loss.

Williams was a force inside with 20 points and eight rebounds, although the Vols weren’t able to keep up with the Wildcats going 33 for 37 at the free-throw line.

Wright commented that this year’s Vols reminded him of some of Barnes’ old teams at Clemson and Providence which he described as tough, scrappy and disciplined.

Barnes wasn’t happy with the outcome, but he still saw some positives.

“We keep talking about championship pedigree that teams have and that’s something we don’t have yet, but we’re going to get it,” Barnes said. “I think that first half showed what we can be, but we’re not there yet.”

Yearly improvement

All signs seem to be trending upward in Barnes’ third season. He went 15-19 in year one and 16-16 last season. With a stronger roster and Tennessee outscoring its opponents by nearly 15 points per game, the Vols are proving to be a hard team to match up against.

Williams leads the team with 15.7 points per game, while Schofield (11.7), Turner (10.7) and Jordan Bowden (10.6) are all in double figures.

There is depth with sophomore guard Jordan Bone, who had a 23-point effort in an 87-75 win at Vanderbilt last season, and 6-foot-11 junior forward Kyle Alexander who recorded double-digit rebounds in wins this season over Purdue, NC State and Georgia Tech.

Growing up in Canada, Alexander didn’t take to the court as early as his teammates.

“With Kyle’s rebounding and doing what he does, he’s very much underrated with outside people,” Barnes said. “We all know what he can mean to us. He has to do the dirty work for us. Kyle is getting better for a guy that’s really only been playing for five years, he’s starting to show some consistency.”

Tennessee returns to action Saturday afternoon when it hosts Lipscomb.

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