KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Rick Barnes wants Tennessee men’s basketball to be a winner, and he knows that it can be done.
Barnes received a first-hand account of the Vols rise to SEC powerhouse during the Bruce Pearl era, when Pearl took an unranked team to Texas and knocked off Barnes’ No. 5-ranked Longhorns, 95-78, in 2005.
Pearl’s dismissal following the 2010-11 season has been well-documented, the recruiting visit infringement involving Ohio State’s Aaron Craft and a barbecue the centerpiece of his ultimate undoing.
But the talented young players Barnes has brought to Knoxville — there will be nine new faces this season — remember watching those Vols of yesteryear make a program-record six straight trips to the NCAA tourney.
Their faces and images are plastered all over Pratt Pavilion, with Barnes wisely embracing the history to serve up reminders of his players of what can be accomplished.
“I remember them, guys like Wayne Chism, Scotty Hopson, Cam Tatum and Bobby Maze, they were good guys on and off the court,” said Vols’ freshman point guard Jordan Bone, whose older brother, Josh, was a defensive stopper on Pearl’s teams.
“I feel like coach Barnes has recruited a lot of guys that can compete like that, and go with the guys we already have on this team.”
Barnes has a private scrimmage set for Saturday against Davidson, looking to make a good evaluation of these young, undersized Vols before they make their public debut in an exhibition game against Slippery Rock at 7 p.m. next Thursday in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Freshman power forward Grant Williams, from Charlotte, N.C., associates with former Vols who come back to play pick-up games in the summer.
“I remember watching Jarnell Stokes, Wayne Chism, Chris Lofton and Jordan McRae,” Williams said. “When they come back, we ask how they did it, and how they were able to make it work when they were ranked No. 1 in 2008 or 2009.”
It was 2008, when Pearl and the Vols won a No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown against a John Calipari-coached Memphis team that had won 47 consecutive home games before falling 66-62 to Tennessee.
The win led to Tennessee being ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25 that week and was part of Pearl’s eye-popping 7-7 record against top 5 teams during his tenure.
Barnes’ young Vols believe they are capable of big things, too.
That’s why graduate transfer Lew Evans chose Tennessee over the likes of Boston College, Kansas State, Washington State, Arizona State and Providence when departing Utah State.
“Coach Barnes is the reason; he’s just a winner,” Evans said. “I want to spend my final year going out with a bang.”
Evans, like his teammates, has heard tales of the glory years from the winningest Vol of all-time, Chism (104 victories).
“Wayne loves everything about Tennessee, and he’s a funny guy that everyone wants to be around when he comes back here,” Evans said. “But you know when he gets on the court, he’s a competitor.”
Barnes has said he’s counting on this season’s team playing a more competitive brand of basketball than any of the Vols’ opponents.
“We tell them from the time we walk on the floor, we’re going to send a message,” Barnes said. “We want them to have a mindset, when the game starts, we will compete from the tip.”
The fact the players have seen Tennessee men’s basketball achieve greatness before can only make their teams seem that much more attainable.
The Vols open the regular season against Chattanooga on Nov. 11 at Thompson-Boling Arena.