The hiring of Rick Barnes answered the most important question for Tennessee — as in who is going to run the program and install a sense of consistency at the top. But since Barnes took the job in late March, other questions have arisen while the team works out over the summer and participates in the Pilot Rocky Top League. How have the players handled the transition to a third new head coach in three years? How have the new big men adjusted to the style of Division I hoops? Who’s going to run the point?
Barnes took the time to address some of those inquiries Monday in an SEC media summer teleconference, starting first with his players' transition to yet another new regime. The first-year Vols head coach equated the diligent work he’s seen on the floor with what came to fruition for Tennessee in the classroom this spring semester.
“I realize I’m, what, the third coach in three years with them, which I think is hard for any group of guys. But we’ve been more than pleased with the fact that they’ve embraced what we’ve asked them to do from a team standpoint,” Barnes said.
“This spring, as a team, we had the highest spring semester GPA recorded in the history of the program and we had six students with a 3.0 or better. Derek Reese was recognized as one of the top GPAs among all student-athletes this spring, so we're excited about that. In fact, we told them that we believe that to have the discipline we want on the court, we've got to have it off the court as well."
Two new guys hoping to enhance that success in both areas are power forward Ray Kasongo and center Kyle Alexander. Kasongo is a junior college transfer originally slated to attend Oregon who was courted by some of the country’s premier hoops programs at the conclusion of his College of Southern Idaho stint . Alexander is a lanky freshman with an extremely high ceiling and aggressive personality around the rim. Together, they could reshape the Vols’ frontcourt.
“They both certainly have the ability that we think that they can be outstanding players for us. They work hard and are doing the things we ask them to do,” Barnes said. “They’re two different players in the fact that you’ve got one guy (Kasongo) who physically, if you look at him, has a tremendous body on him and still has to learn how to use it. Kyle, he’s growing into his body. He’s young, but just a lot of potential ahead for him and he’s willing to work for it. He’s very conscientious. He wants to be good.”
Perhaps the most pressing question mark heading into the fall lies in who will run the all-important point. With the versatile Josh Richardson, who assumed those duties last season, now in the NBA, Barnes is looking at a roster without a single true point guard on it. Combo guard Lamonte’ Turner looks to be the Vols’ first option there but is not yet on campus, leaving Tennessee to take a committee approach at the point until someone singles themselves out.
“It would probably be by committee but there’s a lot of time between now and before we really get started. What we do with our drills, knowing our offense and the way we want to do things, we’ll train a lot of guys to be able to play that position,” Barnes said. “The real key to that position will be who we decide that we want to give the ball to in the last four minutes of the game. I can’t tell you that because I don’t know myself.”
Looming question marks aside, there is one answer Barnes can give with enthusiasm. When it comes to training and practicing, the team he inherited doesn’t lack in the effort department. The intangibles can be taught. What Barnes has seen from his new players so far from an intensity standpoint has encouraged him.
“I will say this: you’ve got to give credit to the previous two staffs that have coached these guys because these guys do bring a level of competition to practice. They work hard, so that’s really something that I’ve appreciated as a coach,” he said. “There’s no doubt that with where we are right now, the players have got us excited as we get heading into next year. We’re building … Just in the short time we’ve been here, we’ve been more than pleased with them.”