Tennessee's Rick Barnes sees 'unbelievable accomplishment' for college basketball

Auburn Athletics photo by Shanna Lockwood / Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes said earlier this week that he is proud of his Volunteers players for navigating the difficulties in a season affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak of the coronavirus ended Tennessee's season last year during the SEC tournament.

With Tennessee having earned a double bye into Friday's quarterfinal round of the Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament in Nashville, sixth-year Volunteers coach Rick Barnes has extra time to build on Sunday afternoon's 65-54 victory over Florida that completed a 17-7 regular season.

One couldn't fault Barnes for reflecting this week as well, as the coronavirus pandemic ended his fifth season earlier than expected and has affected his current team as well.

Tennessee is the fourth seed in this year's extravaganza but was seeded eighth a year ago, when the Vols had a Thursday lunchtime tip against ninth-seeded Alabama. Vols players and their Crimson Tide counterparts had dressed for the clash, but SEC commissioner Greg Sankey canceled the game and the tournament roughly an hour before the matchup.

"It was a scary and unknown time for all of us, because we weren't sure what to make of COVID," Barnes said recently on a Zoom call. "When things started happening quickly at the end of the year, and with the reaction of the NBA, I thought we were headed there, too. I remember going into the arena that day strongly feeling we shouldn't be doing it, because I just felt like there was so much unknown. I felt like we did the right thing as a league at that time and college basketball did the right thing.

"Do we know more now than we did a year ago? We do. We have learned a lot from other pro sports and going through it ourselves with intercollegiate athletics - not just football and basketball, but other things. We are now more prepared to handle things."

These numbers may seem ancient given the difficult path this country just experienced in December, January and last month, but last year's SEC tournament was scrapped when the United States had encountered roughly 1,300 infections and 39 deaths.

The cancellation of last year's NCAA men's basketball tournament resulted in a $600 million annual decline in the governing body's total revenue for its 2019-20 fiscal year, according to a USA Today report in January. Another such hit this year would be devastating, so the effort has been made to stage this entire season as safely as possible.

Some schools have avoided the COVID-related protocols better than others, with Texas A&M having endured the toughest winter of any SEC men's program by going all February without playing. On the women's side, Vanderbilt shut its season down entirely after just eight games.

Tennessee had early season matchups against Charlotte, VCU, top-ranked Gonzaga and Notre Dame canceled due to positive COVID tests, with Barnes being among them, but things have been very successful since on that front, as reflected by the 24 total games.

"It's been an unbelievable accomplishment for all of us in college basketball, because it's unlike anything I've witnessed in my life," Barnes said. "One thing I miss by all of us wearing these masks is seeing our guys smile, to look at their faces and to read them. I don't know the last time they saw my face, because when I'm in the locker room with them, I'm going to wear my mask and do what we're supposed to do.

"I think about our freshmen who have been here, and nothing is normal in terms of what we started out with. To think about how the SEC took it from the beginning - to say we're going to work our way through this to what we've done on campus with our leadership here, the athletic department and what our doctors and internal staff have done, it's remarkable."

There already are examples of teams having to pull out of their conference tournaments due to COVID-related issues, and that same fate could await the Vols or another SEC program in Nashville. The future remains uncertain, which is why Barnes continues to be so appreciative of the past and present.

"When I look back, I have certainly been impressed with the leadership from the highest level down," Barnes said. "More importantly, I appreciate what our guys have done, because I know it has not been easy on them. I know what it's like to be a kid, and I don't know if I could do all this when I was a kid.

"I'm one that wouldn't always adhere to the rules because of my personality, so I admire our guys for doing the right thing. I know it's been hard on them and for any team in college basketball."

Vols honored

Tennessee senior forward Yves Pons was named Tuesday to the SEC All-Defensive Team for a second consecutive year following a vote of league coaches. Pons, who has 36 blocks, 16 steals and nine charges drawn this season, joins Josh Richardson (2014-15) as the only Vols ever to be named twice to the league's defensive team.

Among the eight members to make the SEC All-Freshman team were five-star guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 42-757-6524.