When Tennessee hired Rick Barnes on March 31, 2015, it was not, to say the least, big news. For one thing, there was a Final Four getting set to tip off in Indianapolis, one featuring Michigan State, undefeated Kentucky, Wisconsin and eventual champion Duke.
For another thing, the Volunteers were, incredibly, on their fourth coach in a span of five years. Barnes was brought in to replace Donnie Tyndall, who had been fired after just one season in Knoxville because of NCAA charges against him stemming from his previous stop at Southern Miss.
Tyndall, of course, had been brought in to replace Cuonzo Martin, who took a job at Cal after just three full seasons with UT. And Martin had been the designated replacement for Bruce Pearl, who had been dismissed by the Vols after he was charged with unethical conduct by the NCAA.
So no, there wasn't much fanfare when Tennessee hired a coach who himself had just been dismissed at Texas. But now, in his third season at the helm, Barnes is generating the right kind of news. (Well, for the most part.)
In fact, Barnes arguably has the best team he has had in his career since his 2010-11 team at Texas. That Longhorns team went 28-8 overall, 13-3 in the Big 12 (Kansas went 14-2) and earned a No. 4 seed in the tournament before falling to Arizona by one point in the round of 32.
This season Tennessee is led by Grant Williams, who surely merits a special award as the nation's best player shorter than 6-foot-8 who has yet to make a 3-pointer in calendar 2018. The 6-foot-7 sophomore is the Vols' featured scorer, and while he's just 3-for-21 on 3s for the season, his 51 percent shooting on 2s at a high volume (and with a minimum of turnovers) makes him the motor of this very good Tennessee offense.
(As a side note, Williams should keep trying an occasional 3. His 74 percent shooting at the line suggests those attempts will begin to fall at some point.)
UT is scoring an outstanding 1.16 points per possession against conference opponents this season, second only to what the Auburn offense has recorded in SEC play (1.17 points per trip). Tennessee is not a perimeter-oriented team, but this is definitely a perimeter-proficient one.
With an outside shooting nucleus made up of Admiral Schofield, Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden, the Volunteers are hitting 40 percent of their 3-pointers in conference play. That's the second-best mark in the league (again, behind Auburn), and it raises the question of whether this offense could benefit from shooting even more 3s.
Thus far, Tennessee has devoted 35 percent of its attempts to tries from beyond the arc. That's a step below the conference average (37 percent), and it bears repeating that 100 3-point tries from a team shooting this well should net you 120 points. Barnes might want to experiment with an even greener light than what he has been showing to this point in the season.
Alternately, the head coach could bust out his red (or at least yellow?) light for use inside the arc. The aforementioned perimeter trio of Schofield, Turner and Bowden is teachably close to shooting the same collective percentage on 2s (43.2) as on 3s (42.0). From the standpoint of 2s, of course, that's not a good thing. Open layups notwithstanding, Tennessee could well benefit from fewer tries inside the arc from Volunteers not named Williams, Kyle Alexander and Derrick Walker.
A slight tweak in shot selection promises to pay dividends because this offense takes excellent care of the ball. UT has committed a turnover on just 16 percent of its possessions in SEC play. With this offense ending 84 percent of its trips with some form of shot and then hitting its 3s on top of that, opposing defenses have been hard-pressed to limit the Vols' scoring.
On defense, Tennessee is average-to-solid across the board, with the exception of forcing turnovers. The Volunteers have been better than average at taking the ball away in SEC play, and this turnover margin has put the wind at the back of Barnes' men.
Williams: We all care about each other as a team
Sophomore forward Grant Williams discusses how hard his team fights on the floor and competes on the defensive end.
They'll need that wind to continue, because this is where the schedule gets difficult for UT. The Vols' next two games are road dates at Kentucky and Alabama. Then comes a home game against South Carolina, followed by a road game at Georgia.
The good news for fans in Knoxville is that the team is playing its best basketball of the season. During its current four-game SEC win streak, Tennessee has scored an absurd 1.23 points per possession.
In short, Barnes has his team peaking as it reaches the meat of its schedule. The coach whose hiring seemed almost an afterthought is proving that there is indeed life after being shown the door at the previous gig.