Barnes appreciative of another 20-win season with the Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo / Dalton Knecht (3) and Tobe Awaka (11) combined for 35 points Tuesday night as Tennessee clinched another 20-win season with its 72-67 victory at Missouri.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Dalton Knecht (3) and Tobe Awaka (11) combined for 35 points Tuesday night as Tennessee clinched another 20-win season with its 72-67 victory at Missouri.

Dalton Knecht didn’t make any first-half baskets and finished with five turnovers, while Josiah-Jordan James, Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler were a combined 4-of-18 from the floor.

Tennessee’s ugliest Southeastern Conference basketball win of the season took place Tuesday night with its 72-67 comeback triumph at cellar-dwelling Missouri, but ninth-year Volunteers coach Rick Barnes wasn’t taking the victory or its significance for granted. For the fifth time in seven years and for a third consecutive occasion, Tennessee has assembled a 20-win season.

Simple math explains that 20-win seasons are easier to amass in an era when programs compete in 31 contests before conference tournament time — the late Ray Mears compiled five 20-win seasons at Tennessee in a seven-year stretch from 1964-65 to 1970-71 without ever having more than 28 games in a complete season — but it is still a number that signifies stability and success.

“Our administration is tremendous not only as a university but what we want to be as an athletic department,” Barnes said in a news conference Tuesday night after his No. 5 Vols improved to 20-6 overall and 10-3 in SEC play. “They’ve given us everything we need, but so much of our credit today goes to our older guys. When Josiah and Santi came in, that was a little bit of a transition period after the Grant Williams era had ended. Those guys came in and got put in the fire.

“Then Zakai comes in, a guy we thought we were going to redshirt, and his DNA had a major impact. Jahmai Mashack has played a lot of minutes, and I give them credit for the way they embraced Jordan (Gainey) and Dalton. We won a lot of games last year like this, but we didn’t have a guy who could go get the points like Dalton did tonight when we needed them.”

Tennessee’s run of 20-win seasons under Barnes began with the 26-9 team in 2017-18 that tied Auburn for the SEC regular-season title and the 31-6 team in 2018-19 that ascended to No. 1 in the nation and eventually suffered a gut-wrenching loss to Purdue in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.

There is a “we’ll never know” element to the 2019-20 and 2020-21 Vols who went 17-14 and 18-9, respectively, because the 17-win team had its season halted by the coronavirus outbreak roughly an hour before Tennessee was scheduled to open SEC tournament play against Alabama. The coronavirus also limited the amount of nonconference games that were staged in 2020-21.

Tennessee then went 27-8 and 25-11, with last year’s 25-win team returning to the Sweet 16.

“It’s a compliment to our coaches and players, because we set the bar high,” Barnes said. “We’ve got an unselfish group of guys. We’ve got everything we need.”

The Vols attained six 20-win seasons in Don DeVoe’s first seven seasons from 1978-79 to 1984-85. The lone exception was the 1979-80 team that went 18-11 and lost to Maryland in the NCAA round of 32.

Bruce Pearl posted 20-win seasons with each of his first five teams from 2005-06 to 2009-10 and was in a position for another when his sixth and final squad was 15-7 in early February. That team, however, went 4-8 in its last 12 games, which included a blistering 75-45 loss to Michigan in an NCAA tournament first-round matchup.

Pearl ignited Tennessee’s fan base during his time in Knoxville, and frenzied crowds inside the Food City Center also exist under Barnes. Another sold-out audience awaits Saturday night for a visit from Texas A&M, which is not only a revenge opportunity for the Vols but a chance at a 21st triumph.

“Tennessee is an awesome place and a great job with a great fan base,” Barnes said. “Everybody says it, but I do think we have the best fans in college basketball. I go back to nine years ago when we were not good and were trying to build it, and I remember the fan support then when we were just struggling to find a way to win games.

“They were with us from the beginning.”

Odds and ends

Barnes will be going for his 800th career win when Tennessee hosts the Aggies. … The Vols have defeated Mizzou five consecutive times in Columbia. … Barnes has now defeated every other SEC coach at least once, with Tigers second-year coach Dennis Gates the lone outlier.

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