Rocky Topics: Can Rick Barnes reach Bruce Pearl like status at UT?

Will Rick Barnes match or surpass the legacy of Bruce Pearl?

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Photo by Sumner Gilliam.

In this week’s Rocky Topics, Chase Carder and David Bradford discuss whether Rick Barnes can reach Bruce Pearl-like status in Knoxville.

Carder- While it’s already evident Rick Barnes won’t get off to near the same start as Bruce Pearl, the program is trending in the right direction. Granted, Bruce Pearl appeared in the NCAA Tournament in each of his six years at Tennessee, while Rick Barnes is looking to make a push to get off the bubble and avoid a second straight season without a tourney bid. But what if Rick Barnes had the likes of C.J. Watson, Chris Lofton, Major Wingate, etc. in his first season? Surely the 15-19 record would have more closely resembled the 22-8 record Bruce Pearl earned in his first season. Given the circumstances each started with, it’s unfair to compare the beginning of the careers of each, but yet discuss the direction of the program with Barnes at the helm. Four of the Tennessee’s top six scoring leaders are freshman. Tennessee is 14-10 with a top-five strength of schedule. After showing their ability to compete with top-level programs in the non-conference slate, the Vols are currently tied for fifth in the SEC. As Rick Barnes continues to bring in and groom his own guys, there’s no doubt Tennessee has a chance to feel like a basketball school again here in the near future, especially given Barnes’ track record. Not only has he been a Division I head coach for nearly 30 years, but with over 600 total wins and a Final Four appearance, its clear his experience is having a positive impact on Tennessee’s young core.

Bradford: Chase, my dear friend, I appreciate the optimism you show toward Rick Barnes, but I am willing to bet a large sum of money ($200, maybe?) that Barnes will never reach Bruce Pearl status. He’s worked wonders with this team, but I question his ability to take a team to the next level—something he couldn’t accomplish consistently at Texas. You mention the Final Four appearance, but to do that only once in three decades of coaching isn’t exactly impressive. Pearl brought Tennessee to newfound heights and would still be coaching if not for that dreaded barbeque incident. Barnes, on the other hand, will probably coach for a little while, but given his track record, I don’t expect the consistent Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight runs Pearl made.

Carder: Everyone’s quick to praise Bruce Pearl, and for good reason, but could it be his successes were over-appreciated due to the state of the program under Buzz Peterson? Granted, it’ll be tough for Barnes to reach Pearl’s level, given his track record, but Barnes is certainly capable. Take last season out of the discussion for Barnes, given he had nothing to work with and focus on this season and what the progress means for the future of the program. For such a young team to be competing for an at-large bid, did anybody expect this? All it took was one year of Barnes incorporating his own players into his system and the Vols are already exceeding expectations. None of these freshman are one-and-done guys either. What will this team look like when they’re upperclassmen playing with a few classes of freshman? This isn’t to say the Tennessee will be title contenders in time. But with the in-season development of young players to go along with Barnes’ track record, please stop with the “don’t expect consistent Sweet Sixteen runs.” Let’s be real, if games were 35 minutes long, Tennessee may have one of the best records in basketball. Wait until the next few seasons, as the inexperience turns into veteran leadership, and maybe then improvements in closing out games will lead to more wins and more recognition. Trust in Rick Barnes!

Bradford: Sorry, I can’t trust in a coach who couldn’t make a tournament run with Kevin Durant, the best college basketball player I’ve ever watched. If Barnes can’t elevate a team with Durant to Final Four status, how can we expect anything similar in Knoxville? The Vols won’t have access to the blue-chip recruits like Kentucky or Duke, so from a talent perspective, they’ll always fall behind. To me, like Butch Jones with the football team, there is a clear ceiling with Barnes, and it’s all based on his extensive track record. Best-case scenario for Barnes is the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament with the potential of a Sweet 16 run. Pearl, on the other hand, wasted no time making tournament runs. Barnes has the appropriate mindset for this young team, but as you basically said, this team can’t close games. Tennessee’s recent win over Ole Miss was a breath of fresh air, but the loss to Mississippi State is more in line with the team Barnes has coached.

Edited by Robert Hughes

Featured image by Sumner Gilliam

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