For the first time in his career, Rick Barnes will be on the other side of the bench when his team gets set to participate in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Saturday. For 17 seasons, Barnes was on the Big 12 side at Texas, where he admits he wasn't a huge fan of the idea that his Longhorn teams with an already brutal schedule would have to face off against an SEC foe in the middle of the season.
"When we were at Texas, I wasn't in favor of it because we played a great non-league schedule," Barnes said. "We didn't need to have a challenge. The thought there was that there were 10 of us, and, here, there are 14 in the league. How do you get a real challenge out of that? Then, there is the thought that at this time of the year, it could be an open week if you have injuries or would like to rest them a little bit."
But now that the first-year Tennessee coach sits at the other side of the table, his thought process has shifted. Barnes sees the Vols' game Saturday against TCU (9-11, 1-7) as a nice litmus test for where his program stacks up with a similar foe. While Tennessee has dropped two of its last three games, the Horned Frogs are in the midst of a five-game losing streak since beating Texas Jan. 9. With both teams currently struggling, this version of the Big 12/SEC Challenge will be one of survival while the SEC tries to prove itself against the best basketball conference in the NCAA.
"It has been good," Barnes said of the challenge. "You could probably take a poll of where the Big 12 is right now and the SEC, but I think it is great for our league right now. We have a chance as a league to do some things special."
TCU has struggled mightily offensively this season, ranking No. 268 in kenpom.com's adjusted offense effeciency. The Horned Frogs don't have a scorer averaging more than 12 points per game with forwardVladimir Brodziansky leading the pack at 11.3 points a contest. Trent Johnson's roster does, however, excel defensively, where it's giving up an average of just 68.5 points per contest. That could be a challenge for the Vols offensively after struggling against a similarly-solid defense in a 63-57 loss to Alabama on the road on Tuesday. Tennessee will need the continued contribution of offensive star Kevin Punter, who's averaging 22.9 points per game from the point guard position — good for second in the SEC and eighth in the country.
"You're looking at how Kevin's scoring, teams are going to go in every game with some kind of approach, like `What can we do to slow him down, stop him from doing this or doing that,'" Barnes said. "That's why I go back to Armani [Moore], what he does for us... He's a guy that gives us another guy that can run our team out there."
Moore's presence has been vital to the Vols so far as he averages 11.7 points in 32 minutes per game while also blocking shots and at times facilitating the offense. The Vols will need Moore to be at his best to snag a road win from the Horned Frogs before a home contest against Kentucky begins a tough stretch of SEC play.
"He's a guy that takes it personal sometimes, and he's hard on himself. He gets frustrated with himself and he gets emotional sometimes, which believe me, you'd rather a guy in some ways have that type of reaction as opposed to being nonchalant about it," Barnes said. "Early in the year we were really trying to find ourselves. I think he's rubbed off on us to where we've gotten balanced now. We don't need Armani to score a lot of points. I think he's going to be really important here as we continue to get in the middle of it before we head down the stretch, helping (Punter) because people are going to really try to take him out of it."