New coaches typically enjoy a “honeymoon period” marked by blind faith and low expectations from the fan base.
“I’m 60 years old, so I don’t know that I’ve thought about a honeymoon or expectations from anybody else,” he said. “I’ve never believed in that. When you go into a new situation you can’t think in terms of rebuilding.”
The departure of Josh Richardson cost Tennessee the heart and soul of a 2014-15 squad that went 16-16 and missed post-season play even with him in the lineup. Still, some fans expect the Vols to be an NCAA Tournament team in the season ahead.
That may not be realistic but Barnes has no problem with optimistic followers.
“I’ve often said that the fans’ expectations will never exceed the coaching staff and players,” he said. “I don’t care what anybody says: I don’t know of any coach of any team – when they line up to play football, baseball, basketball, whatever – they don’t believe they can win that game.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever coached a team that we lined up against someone that was supposedly better and we said, ‘Well, we’re going to lose tonight.’ I don’t believe that. If I thought that, I don’t believe I could do this.”
Coaches don’t get fired for losing games they thought they could win, however. They get fired for losing games fans thought they should win. Cuonzo Martin dropped a bunch of November/December games Vol fans expected him to win. So, despite annual rallies in February and March, Martin’s support was splintered.
Still, Barnes believes aiming high is the only way to go.
“Expectations are great,” he said. “People say that when you have great expectations it leads to disappointments. One thing we know about sport: You don’t get everything you want. But you get up every day chasing what you want. There’s one thing we all want, and that’s the national championship.”
Mentioning the term “national championship” in connection with Tennessee hoops may seem a bit laughable to some fans. After all, this is a program with just one Elite Eight appearance in its history. Barnes believes lofty goals promote progress, however, and that’s his primary objective.
“If you’re not getting better you’re getting worse,” he said. “Every day you get up knowing you’ve got to get better. You’ve got to make today better than yesterday, and you’ve got to get a group of guys that want to buy into that. Regardless of where people might pick us, we’re going to go at it with the idea that every time we go out we’ve got a chance to win.”
Barnes’ optimism stems from 16 NCAA Tournament bids in 17 years at Texas, including a Final Four advance in 2003. Although the talent he inherited in Knoxville is nowhere near the level of the talent he left in Austin, Barnes is not reaching for the crying towel just yet.
“We’re excited about the incoming players,” he said. “But, as we’ve gotten to know our returning players, they’ve got us excited that they’re looking forward to getting going here the first of June. We’ll need everybody (newcomers and returnees), we know that.”
Tennessee signed 6-foot-4 guard Shembari Phillips and 6-foot-6 small forward Admiral Schofield in November. Barnes has signed three more players this spring – 6-foot-10 freshman Kyle Alexander, 6-foot-9 JUCO transfer Ray Kasongo and 6-foot-2 combo guard Lamonte’ Turner. Still, the head man may add one more newcomer.
“We’re getting close to having the roster we plan on going with,” Barnes said, “so it’s time to get down to work.”
In addition to a new roster at a new school in a new conference, Barnes may spend 2015-16 adapting to some new rules. The most significant of the proposed changes involves reducing the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30.
Calling the proposal “a good rule,” Barnes said speculation that it will lead to more zone defenses and more bricks launched at the end of the shot clock is bogus. His Texas teams practiced with a 24-second shot clock, mimicking the NBA. They also practiced with an 18-second clock and even a 10-second clock on occasion.
“We don’t want to get deep into the clock,” he explained. “We want to get up and down, get (transition) opportunities.”
Although he prefers a brisk pace, Barnes will slow the tempo if his team is overmatched.
“I’ve coached teams where we held the ball to make sure the other team didn’t get as many possessions as they wanted,” he said.
Still, he’d much rather utilize the fast pace preferred by the guys playing the game and the fans watching the game.
“I still think it gets back to the fact that people want a wide-open game,” he said. “Almost every sport has helped the offense some way, somehow, to get people excited. In college basketball I’m not sure we’ve done enough of that.”
Barnes also favors extending the “halo” under each basket from three feet to four, expanding the lane to the NBA width and moving the 3-point line to the international dimensions. His thoughts on the proposal to take away one timeout per team are tinged with humor.
“Taking away a timeout doesn’t bother you that much,” he deadpanned, “because I can assure you TV is still going to get their timeouts some way, somehow.”
Like many purists, Barnes believes the game has become too much about making highlight-reel dunks and too little about making perimeter jump shots.
“For the game to get back to what everyone wants it to be,” he said, “I think the players have to improve in terms of shooting.”