What makes a good road team in college basketball?
Every coach in the country will likely have a different specific answer that details the factors they believe are necessary to having success away from home, and Rick Barnes is no different.
The first-year Tennessee coach went over three key areas that help road teams win, and right now, his team doesn't appear to have any of them. The Vols have yet to win a game away from Knoxville this season, blowing a seven-point lead in Athens against Georgia Wednesday to bring their road record to 0-8 so far under Barnes.
“I think you have to be a really good defensive team (to win on the road). Just like the other night (at Georgia), you have to have the ability when a team is shooting like that to hopefully extend your defense, get out there," Barnes said. "But to do that, you have to know that, first of all they’re an inside-out team, that you can stop them inside. We have a hard time doing both of those right now. So we obviously are hoping people take contested jump shots on us."
Tennessee's perimeter defense sorely lacked as Georgia shot 63 percent from behind the arc, exacerbating the problems that have plagued the struggling defensive unit all season. The Vols have also severly lacked a post presence. No player Barnes started Wednesday against Georgia stands over 6-foot-5, and that missing piece inside can really affect teams on the road. Couple that with a young team that is still learning its identity, and it's no surprise Tennessee has failed to close out a victory away from the comfy confines of Thompson-Boling Arena.
“I think you need a post guy that you can throw it into," Barnes said. "When they’re not knocking down 3s, you have to put pressure around the rim. That’s really important. As much as anything, you have to have some toughness. You have to believe. I’m talking some real toughness."
But Barnes doesn't think his team's struggles are mental, however, and he's not so sure one win will spiral into a streak even if the Vols are able to break this current losing streak against Mississippi State (7-8, 0-3) in Starkville Saturday. It's a winnable game against a fellow first-year SEC coach in Ben Howland, who is also being forced to tweak his identity for a roster that is still finding its footing.
The Bulldogs play a mostly 2-3 zone that should challenge Tennesse offensively and big man Gavin Ware has established himself as a prominent threat in the post, averaging 16.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in 2016.
“He’s very aggressive," Barnes said. "I think he does a good job and he wants the ball. He’s a guy that really wants to get his hands on the ball."
Mississippi State also boasts one of the best freshmen in the SEC in Malik Newman, an aggressive player who averages 13 points and 28 minutes a game.
"He does a good job of coming off screens, catching it," Barnes said. "He can raise up on you. He’s one of those guys that can really get going on you, just like we played against on Saturday. He’s capable of putting big numbers up."
Howland and Barnes have faced each other four times before, when the two were at their former schools of UCLA and Texas, but this time the stakes are much different. Mississippi State is 0-5 in games decided by six points or less, while Tennessee is still trying to find its footing on the road and end an 0-8 spell — a winning lesson his team has to learn sooner rather than later.
“I think it’s hard to win on the road," Barnes said. "When you look, most teams in college basketball have a winning record at home. Most of them. They’re good. Most coaches will tell you, we have to win our home games. I think you have to win them all. If you want to win a championship, you’ve got to go on the road and win games."