Vols having their way so far with SEC first-year coaches

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee’s Jahmai Mashack (15) signals for a pass from teammate Tobe Awaka (11) during Saturday’s 77-56 throttling of LSU in Baton Rouge.

The ninth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers are in the midst of a nine-game stretch in which seven of their opponents are guided by first-year coaches.

That is revealing itself quite clearly.

First-year coaches are most often first-year coaches because their predecessors were fired for not winning enough, and the Vols have demolished the Southeastern Conference rebuilding projects taking place at Mississippi State, South Carolina and LSU by an average margin of 27.3 points. Tennessee's 77-56 triumph at LSU on Saturday afternoon qualified as one of the closer calls, and the Vols have another first-year mentor looming Wednesday night with Mike White and Georgia visiting Thompson-Boling Arena.

The SEC's six new coaches have a combined 13-27 record in league play, with Florida's Todd Golden and Georgia's White enjoying the most success with Missouri's Dennis Gates right behind.

"We're all dealt different hands at different times," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said Saturday evening after prevailing in Baton Rouge, "and when I think of the coaches in the league who are new and are trying to build programs, the SEC is in great hands. We had a big turnover and got a new wave of coaches coming in, and when you watch them, there are so many good schemes going on.

"It's really neat to watch, but my staff does an unbelievable job of scouting, and they spent weeks ahead of time to start getting ready for these teams and trying to know what we need to do to help our players."

This season's SEC race is topped by programs with coaches who are at least in their fourth years at their respective schools, with Alabama (7-0), Auburn (6-1), Tennessee (6-1) and Texas A&M (5-1) leading the pack. At the opposite end of the standings is the newcomer trio of LSU's Matt McMahon, Mississippi State's Chris Jans and South Carolina's Lamont Paris, who each has one conference conquest.

LSU won its league opener over Arkansas, but Saturday's loss to the Vols was its sixth straight and the fifth by double digits.

"I think you have a team that is devastated right now from these last couple of weeks and the totality of where we're at," McMahon said Saturday after the 21-point defeat in which his Tigers trailed by 27 at one point. "Unfortunately, this is part of the process that we signed up for. You have to try and find some positives, as difficult as that is.

"I knew this was not going to be an easy task."

South Carolina's one league win under Paris, who guided the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to last season's NCAA tournament, was a memorable topping of Kentucky inside Rupp Arena. In the four SEC games so far inside Colonial Life Arena, however, Paris and the Gamecocks have been outscored by Tennessee, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Auburn by 111 combined points.

The Gamecocks did not lead once in those 160 painful minutes.

"It's doing things consistently," Paris said in a news conference after Saturday's 81-66 loss to Auburn that contained a 26-point deficit. "We haven't done things consistently. We'll have small stretches in some games, a decent amount of stretches in other games and no stretches in some games of doing the things that we want to do."

Tennessee's three closest contests this season have transpired against programs with established leadership, surviving Ole Miss and fifth-year coach Kermit Davis 63-59, outlasting Vanderbilt and fourth-year coach Jerry Stackhouse 77-68, and falling to Kentucky and 14th-year coach John Calipari 63-56.

The closest SEC game the Vols have played against a first-year coach was last Tuesday night's 70-59 win at Mississippi State, when they had to adjust without starting guards Santiago Vescovi and Tyreke Key.

"Our team pulls for each other at an extremely high rate, and we keep talking about more leadership coming from within," Barnes said. "We've got a very unselfish team. We really do. Our guys will come back and get ready, and I can assure you that they will compete against each other every day in practice."

Barnes is in his eighth season in Knoxville, and the weeks ahead will reveal whether these Vols will be his best. Tennessee has a deep and proven roster, which is something first-year coaches need time to develop and something the Vols players certainly appreciate.

"We're blessed to be at this university and to be coached by Coach Barnes and our staff," senior guard Josiah-Jordan James said, "and I think the next-man-up mentality applies everywhere. We lost Coach (Michael) Schwartz and Coach (Kim) English, but the staff we have here right now is second to none, and I feel like the players are, too."

Said sophomore guard Zakai Zeigler: "Nobody on our team has to get ready, because we're always ready."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.