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First-year Tennessee coach Rick Barnes gestures from the sideline during Saturday night's loss to Gonzaga in Seattle.

By wins and losses alone, it's difficult to find any reason to feel better about this year's Tennessee men's basketball team than last year's model.

In fact, last year's Volunteers actually were one win better after 10 games, standing 6-4 to this year's 5-5 mark. And while the lone somewhat impressive victory this season might be a 95-80 home win over disciplined Army, last year's squad — coached by NCAA serial cheater Donnie Tyndall — beat both Butler and Kansas State before Santa came calling.

Say what you want of Donnie Disaster's lone winter in Volsville, the guy could coach, especially defense.

A single quote to support the man's ability to motivate a skills-challenged team: "I just feel like we got out-toughed in the second half," Butler forward Kameron Woods noted after the Bulldogs watched a 12-point lead become a 12-point loss inside Thompson-Boling Arena.

But to watch this year's Big Orange bunch fight to the finish against Gonzaga inside Seattle's Key Arena late Saturday night was also to appreciate the good person and coach who replaced Tyndall: former Texas, Clemson, Providence and George Mason coach Rick Barnes.

Down 19 in the opening half to a pretty good Zags team playing in its own back yard, the Vols not only erased that mountainous deficit, but they actually led 61-59 with 10 minutes to play before falling 86-79.

As in several of their earlier defeats this season, lack of size and experience inside did the Vols in. Gonzaga big man Domantas Sabonis — son of former NBA player Arvidas Sabonis — had 36 points and 16 rebounds. Former Kentucky player Kyle Wiltjer added 24 points from all spots on the floor, including swishing his first two 3-point attempts.

Yet bad as it looked for the Clorox Orange crowd late in the opening half, Tennessee made the Zags look just as feeble early in the second, when the Vols' advantages in quickness and perimeter shooting almost pulled off an impressive upset.

"They've got quick athletes and athletic guys that can spread it out and shoot it," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of the opponent coached by his good friend Barnes. "They were picking the matchup they liked against our bigs and attacking it pretty good."

Picking matchups. Spreading it out and shooting it. Making your weakness (lack of size) your strength. Barnes isn't one to toot his own horn much. But anyone who's ever worked against him — from Few to Kentucky's John Calipari to Kansas coach Bill Self — will quickly sing his X and O praises.

Or just listen to his current players before this season began, beginning with senior Armani Moore, who's played for three UT coaches — Cuonzo Martin, Tyndall and Barnes — during his career.

"Most coaches seem to get away from fundamentals," Moore said in late October at the Southeastern Conference's preseason media event. "Coach Barnes is always coaching passing, shooting and dribbling. Three hours. All fundamentals. Even in the NBA, they don't always know how to pass, how to shoot."

How to shoot? Four players for the Vols — leading scorer Kevin Punter, Moore, Devon Baulkman and Detrick Mostella — hit two 3-pointers each. UT connected on 10 of 21 overall.

Said Punter at the start of the year: "If you're open, (Barnes) will get mad if you don't shoot the ball. You might say, 'I wasn't open and he'll say, 'You WERE open.' He might even make you run."

Running is what these Vols do best at the moment, even if Barnes has been known more for defense than offense through most of his career. Yet knowing his quick, athletic guys play best when they play fast, he's opened it up from the first practice of the season, stressing zip over zap.

The result has been an offense that is averaging 17.1 more points per game than last year's team while hitting 1.4 more treys a contest.

This doesn't mean these Vols ultimately will match or improve upon last year's 16-16 mark. It doesn't mean they'll ultimately avoid an opening-night game in the SEC tournament.

But it should mean that watching them the rest of the season will be more fun than at any time since the program was forced to cut ties with Bruce Pearl at the close of the 2011 season, and that's a tribute to Barnes' versatility as a coach.

When longtime college basketball analyst Larry Conley was in town for last week's Quarterback Club meeting, he responded to a question about Barnes by recalling a list he provided former Kentucky interim athletic director Terry Mobley.

The year was 2002 and NCAA violations concerning UK's football program had forced Mobley into the AD's office. Because Conley was an old friend and Big Blue teammate, Mobley asked him for five names for the basketball job, just in case then-coach Tubby Smith were to leave.

"The five names I gave him," Conley said, "were (current Kansas coach) Bill Self, (Michigan State coach) Tom Izzo, (former Florida coach) Billy Donovan, (former Stanford coach) Mike Montgomery and Barnes."

All five have been to the Final Four, a place Tennessee never has gone, and three of the five — Self, Izzo and Donovan (twice) — have won NCAA titles.

It's clearly early in the game, but if Barnes can improve the program going forward as much as he's improved Punter individually — taking the senior from 10.3 points a game a year ago to 23.0 so far this season — he just might become the fourth coach on Conley's long-ago list to win it all.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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