KNOXVILLE — Tennessee men's basketball coach Rick Barnes is ready to get to a more "normal" schedule.
The upcoming Southeastern Conference slate provides just that.
Barnes' third-ranked Volunteers (11-1) will host Georgia (8-4) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena in the conference opener for both teams.
After playing six games in the first 23 days of their season, a stretch that ended with a rout of Eastern Kentucky on Nov. 28, the Vols have played just six since due to finals and holidays, with the most recent a 43-point pasting of Tennessee Tech this past Saturday. Now it's time for the routine a league schedule provides.
"I think we're all ready for that," Barnes said at his Wednesday news conference. "We're (about to be) playing a consistent schedule because we've been at it for a long time, as all teams have across the country. Now we're getting into a schedule where it's two games a week and we'll settle into a routine. Once school gets started next week, it'll pretty much be the same routine from here on out, and I think we're all ready for that, to be honest with you."
Obviously, Barnes has tried to make the most of the past month as well.
"It seems like we've had a lot of these weeks off, three of them it seems like," he said. "But we've been able to utilize them to help us get better we've had had mini training camps where you get two really good days in. Now it's all about prep work and maintaining your condition throughout the year and not letting that slip away. Right now I think more than ever, discipline becomes a big part on and off the court. As we get going here and you start tapering off as the season gets going, guys have to take care of themselves away from the court knowing that, believe it or not, you're always worrying about guys gaining weight once you get into the season, because maybe (there's) not as much time on the court as a team.
"You want to have fresh legs when you get ready and you want to be fresh mentally for games. So it's really important when they get more time that they don't use it the wrong way."
Extra time in the practice gym in recent weeks has been especially beneficial to players such as guard Jalen Johnson and forward Derrick Walker, who weren't in the regular playing rotation last season but are attempting to work their way into consistent roles this year. Johnson has been trying to make up some of the production lost with guard Lamonte Turner's lingering shoulder trouble.
The extra practice time has also been important to sophomore forward John Fulkerson, who finally appears himself this after spending most of last season working his way back from an injury that stole all but 10 games in 2016-17.
But the sporadic schedule has also been busy enough with games to allow Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams to become known as two of the top players in the SEC, if not the country. It has made junior Jordan Bone, who as a point guard endured some of Barnes' toughest criticism early in his Vols career, into one of the hottest players in the nation.
And it's the development of those players that has helped Barnes and his staff as they continue to build the program in his vision.
"I think kids are current," Barnes said. "When they see programs that are building and doing things, they will take a look. It isn't going to change the way we recruit. It opens doors, but we have always called the best players since we got to campus. Do you get in a little bit easier now? Obviously, you do.
"Our staff knows so much about what we are doing and what we are looking for in the players that we recruit and the culture we have here. Just because other people might have them rated high, they might not be what we want. We are going to continue doing that kind of evaluation for our guys. There is no doubt that winning and success makes it easier to get started with recruiting the top players."