One of Rick Barnes' priorities when he first accepted the job at Tennessee was making what he refers to as a "national schedule." In his 17 years at Texas and his coaching experience prior, Barnes figured out that playing a tough schedule with big-name opponents was beneficial to the on-court development and resume' of his team at season's end. Another preference hinged on landing a game against an elite program in Nashville to continue extending Tennessee's reach into the mid-state area.
The first-year Vols head coach dipped into his deep contact book to accomplish both of those goals, starting first with current Bulldog head coach Mark Few. The two met at a basketball tournament in Alaska in the mid-1990s when Barnes was coaching at Clemson and Few was an assistant with Gonzaga,
"Once I got the job here, the one thing that we wanted to do right off the bat was really get the schedule at the level where we want to play a national schedule and I knew people wanted to play a game in Nashville." He was the first guy that I called and he said, 'Absolutely,'"
The two decided on a swap: Tennessee will head to Washington this year to play the Zags in their annual "Battle for Seattle" game, with a return trip to Nashville next season. Both coaches know each other extremely well on the court, too, scrimmaging in the pre-season annually when Barnes was at Texas to further this symbiotic relationship.
"We just got to know each other," Barnes said of his relationship with Few. "He's a wonderful person and a great guy. We just kind of clicked a little bit ... We've scrimmaged them down in Boulder, in Phoenix. We just kind of did it a couple different places. It was a good thing."
This time, though, the game between these two friends will count in the scorebooks. The Vols (5-4) head to Seattle against a Gonzaga team that is 7-3 on the season and looking to rebound after losing two of its last three home games. Each team will catch the other with an extremely important missing piece. The Bulldogs are without one of their key frontcourt pieces in Przemek Karnowski, a 7-foot-1 center who averaged 8 points and 5.8 boards per game who has missed the past five matchups with a back injury.
Conversely, Tennessee will most likely be without Robert Hubbs, an inside-out threat who is averaging 15 points per game this year, as he rehabilitates from arthroscopic knee surgery.
"They've got an injury to a very important player. I don't know where he is. I don't know if he's going to play," Barnes said. "Their frontline, as we know, is terrific. The guard play, he's got some new guards working in there. As always, (Few) plays a great schedule and we'd love to have Hubbs, but I don't think he's going to play."
The Zags' frontcourt has become more balanced in recent weeks with improved guard play, specifically from Bryan Alberts, who went 4-of-5 from the field for 14 points in his first start of the season in an 86-50 win over Saint Martin. Alberts' emergence comes as a complement to Kyler Wiltjer, the team's leading scorer at 20 points per game, and freshman forward sensation Damantas Sabonis.
Success for the Vols doesn't have to come in a victory per se, as Tennessee's depleted depth and lack of a true post presence has hindered it from hitting its stride, but a competitive game against a bigger and more talented team would showcase improvement heading into SEC play.
"I do know this, you get rewarded for playing a tough schedule as long as you're competitive in those type of games," Barnes said. "The one thing you have to appreciate with what the NCAA committee does now, they're watching. They will be aware that we went to Butler and played minus a guy that averaged 15 points. They know that. They're going to know all those type of things when they get to the situation of the year of when you're in or you're out."