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Tennessee coach Rick Barnes reacts to a call during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Georgia on Saturday, March 3, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Crystal LoGiudice)

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Wiedmer: At the very least, Tennessee's Rick Barnes should be national co-coach of the year

Three springs ago, the University of Texas decided to sever ties with men's basketball coach Rick Barnes after 17 mostly satisfying seasons. Apparently having your team average 23.6 wins and reach the NCAA tournament 16 of those 17 seasons in a football-crazy state was no longer good enough.

So Barnes was out and Shaka Smart was in.

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To former University of Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart's great credit, the Southeastern Conference's UT and its pale orange saw what the Big 12 Conference's UT and its burnt orange could not — Barnes is still one heckuva basketball coach.

So while Smart is 18-13 (8-10 Big 12) this season and 49-48 overall with the Longhorns, Barnes is 23-7 (13-5 SEC) this season and 54-42 overall with the Volunteers. He's also the architect of the program's first SEC championship (the Vols share the regular-season title with Auburn) since 2008.

Which leads to the question: Did burnt-orange UT make the same mistake dismissing Barnes that pale-orange UT made firing Phillip Fulmer as football coach in 2008 after 16 mostly satisfying seasons? And while Fulmer — now Tennessee's athletic director — didn't hire Barnes, his proclamation after Saturday's home win against Georgia that the school's men's basketball boss deserves to be "national coach of the year" certainly holds much merit.

After all, when your team is picked to finish 13th in its conference but ties for first, that's pretty stout work.

Barnes and the Big Orange didn't just shine in SEC play, where their success included a season sweep of Kentucky for the first time since 1999. The Vols also have wins over Big Ten tournament runner-up Purdue, as well as Atlantic Coast Conference members Georgia Tech, N.C. State and Wake Forest.

You could certainly argue the Auburn coach whom Barnes shares that regular-season crown with — former Vols coach Bruce Pearl — is equally deserving, if not more so, of any league or national X's-and-O's accolades. Pearl's Tigers weren't much more highly regarded than Barnes' Vols in the media's SEC preseason poll, though rising from ninth to first isn't quite as impressive as going from 13th to first in a 14-team league.

Of course, it's also more than fair to argue that Pearl coaching all season without the talents of forward Danjel Purifoy and big man Austin Wiley — while also dealing with the season-ending injury to skywalker Anfernee McLemore — was akin to Barnes having to make do without his Bruise Brothers post players, Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams. Even Barnes might admit "no way, no how" to that scenario.

But critics will also argue Purifoy and Wiley were ineligible because of an ongoing FBI investigation into college basketball corruption that has already forced Auburn to fire assistant Chuck Person. Fair or not, Pearl may be judged negatively by various voters for coaching awards because of that dynamic. That's not to say he won't win both SEC and national honors, but if he doesn't, the off-court issues will likely be the reason.

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Yet that's also one of Barnes' greatest strengths. He is and always has been squeaky clean. Heck, he doesn't even have an agent, much less a relationship with the same unscrupulous sports agents who currently have Auburn in scalding hot water.

He's the kind of guy you might expect to spring from Hickory, N.C. — a guy who married his high school sweetheart, spent the majority of his coaching career at Southern football schools (Clemson, Texas and Tennessee) and whose favorite guilty gastronomic pleasure is a really good hot dog.

He's a throwback to a less bombastic, self-absorbed time, enthusiastically embracing the teaching side of coaching rather than the marketing side. Name another coach anywhere who would dare to change the shooting motion of his point guard prior to his senior season. Yet that's just what Barnes did with Kevin Punter during his first season as coach of the Vols. Remarkably, Punter went from averaging 10.3 points per game the season before Barnes arrived to leading the conference at 22.2.

This is not to say there aren't at least a handful of coaches beyond Barnes and Pearl who should be considered for national coach of the year.

Brad Brownell has done a fine job at Clemson this season, going 22-8 overall and 11-7 in the ACC. Chris Holtmann had Ohio State in the Big Ten title hunt until the final weekend. Chris Beard has been remarkable at Texas Tech in his second year there, taking a team that was picked seventh in the Big 12 in the preseason and guiding it to a second-place finish behind Kansas, including a road win against the Jayhawks. Steve Alford has also done great work at UCLA, given that the Bruins lost Lonzo Ball to the NBA and had the shoplifting mess in China to start the year.

But only Barnes has taken a team picked 13th in the preseason to co-champion of the deepest league in the land.

"This is what you play for," he said a couple of days before Saturday's win over Georgia clinched a tie for the SEC crown. "You want to win championships. We've got a group of guys that have worked hard and believed, probably when a lot of people on the outside didn't. For them to do what they've done to this point is a compliment to them and their work ethic."

It's also a huge compliment to their coach. And if Barnes isn't at least a co-coach of the year nationally, the FBI needs to investigate that.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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