Tennessee Vols' Barnes doesn't use term 'rebuilding' for his teams

Former University of Texas head basketball coach Rick Barnes addresses reporters after being named head coach at the University of Tennessee on March 31, 2015, in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE -- Three days into his tenure as Tennessee's basketball coach, Rick Barnes still is coming to grips with what lies ahead of him with the Volunteers.

It's certainly fair to call it a rebuilding job.

Just don't tell the 60-year-old Barnes it is.

"I've never used that term," Barnes told the Times Free Press on Friday morning during an interview in his new office inside Thompson-Boling Arena. "I don't think you can do that. I don't think you can honestly stand up in front of your team and (say that).

"Somebody asked me on a radio interview the other day about my (Texas) players. Well, these guys are my players, the ones that are here and buy into what we're doing. I don't think you can ever say to a group of guys this is a rebuilding year or, 'We've just got to build a foundation.'

"I think you've got to build the mindset that every time we go on the floor we're going to win. There's a lot of different ways to play this game. What we have to do as a coaching staff is figure out with this group of guys the best way that, when we walk on the floor every game, in our mind and our players' minds we know if we do what we're supposed to do, we've got a chance.

"I don't understand rebuilding. We're going to hopefully add some more pieces to it, but some of the guys that walked in here yesterday impressed me talking to me and said all the right things to me. I addressed that same question. I know it's been a difficult time, but this where we are, and we've got to go."

Barnes may not want to put the label on it, but the former Texas coach does face a rebuilding job with the Vols.

Tennessee went 16-16 this season, finished 10th in the Southeastern Conference and missed out on the postseason for the first time since 2005.

The undersized, inexperienced roster that overachieved under former coach Donnie Tyndall loses its best player in All-SEC guard Josh Richardson, and there's always some attrition involved in coaching transitions at this level.

Barnes, hired and introduced Tuesday as Tennessee's third coach within a year, has hit the ground running.

His staff isn't finished yet. It will include Chris Ogden, an assistant coach with Barnes at Texas since 2008, and Riley Davis, a former Sam Houston State assistant and scout for the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats who was Barnes' special assistant and video coordinator last season in his second stint at Texas. Both Ogden and Davis are in Knoxville.

Barnes met individually with each of Tennessee's returning players Thursday, and the only one who indicated he wants to transfer at this point is Tariq Owens, the spindly forward who flashed some upside as a freshman this season.

Part of the coach's conversations with players included next season's preseason all-conference teams and how some of those players will make it at the end of the season while others "will come out of nowhere" in the course of the season.

"It happens every year," Barnes said. "There's going to be teams that'll be picked to be in the NCAA tournament next year that won't make it. Some teams are going to come out of nowhere and (make it). That's what makes this game the best. Between now and next basketball season, it's going to get down to those guys who put time in and separate themselves.

"I'm excited. In talking to some of these guys yesterday, I can tell that they want to get this done. One thing they all said to me was how much they love the University of Tennessee. They all said that to me."

The first few days on a new job typically are taxing for coaches. When he talked to his son, Nick, on Friday morning, Barnes admitted he felt tired Thursday night following another hectic day of meetings. He certainly seemed energized Friday morning as he met for more than two hours with some local reporters.

It's been 17 years since Barnes was in the process of taking over at a new program, but he's stepped into situations similar to the one he faces with the Vols.

Providence followed making the 1987 Final Four under Rick Pitino with an 11-17 season when Barnes took over there. Clemson was 60-60 with three NIT appearances in four seasons after Cliff Ellis took the Tigers to the Sweet 16 in 1990. Texas followed up a Sweet 16 run as a No. 10 seed in 1997 with a 14-17 record the season before Barnes' arrival.

"When I went to Providence, we were picked to finish last in the Big East my first year," Barnes said. "We went to the NCAA tournament. Went to Clemson, and we were told we had inherited the worst team in the history of the ACC. My AD actually told me he didn't think we'd win five games in two years. That team went to the NIT.

"We named them the 'Slab Five,' because we told them they were going to build the foundation for us, and there's actually a scholarship endowed at Clemson for the 'Slab Five.' We didn't have a starter over 6-foot-7 and had Clemson's first-ever rookie of the year in Greg Buckner.

"Every year you're building. If you want to use that term 'rebuilding,' every year you're rebuilding. You're changing."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.