KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Rick Barnes’ message to his team before the North Carolina game was that the game “would not define us.”
And while that might be true in the Vols’ locker room, it is not true to most of us that make up the rest of the world who witnessed the No. 7 Tar Heels go on a 9-0 run in the final minute to steal a 78-73 win at No. 20 Tennessee.
It was another moral victory for the No. 20-ranked Vols, who fell to 7-2 with their other loss being against No. 1-ranked Villanova in a game they led by 15 points.
This time, Tennessee can say it led for 37 of the 40 minutes and was up by as many as nine points.
Of course, last year’s team was beating North Carolina by 15 — yes, 15 at Chapel Hill — before falling 73-71.
These Vols are bigger, better, deeper and more well-seasoned club than last year’s Tennessee team — or any other UT men’s basketball team since the 2010 crew, for that matter.
Barnes deserves credit for assembling this roster and developing the talent to compete with any team in the nation.
Barnes is a College Basketball Hall of Fame coach, and that should not be up for debate.
But Barnes needs to prove at Tennessee that he can get the right combination of players on the floor when the games are on the line.
That’s the knock on Barnes from NBA scouts — that he tinkers and substitutes too much, and that he doesn’t let his teams settle into any sort of rhythm.
But no one should question Barnes’ eye for talent, his ability to develop or motivate players or resucitate a program.
It’s just a matter of how high can Barnes take the Vols at this point, and understanding the ceiling might not be as high as some had hoped.
The definition of Tennessee basketball — the refined definition after the Vols were inexplicably picked to finish 13th in the league by whatever group passed as voting members of the media in Birmingham at SED media days — is this is a team that can’t win the big game.
Sunday featured a sold-out crowd, orange-and-white checkerboard arena, and what was generally considered the biggest game since No. 1 Kansas was in Thompson-Boling Arena in 2010.
Difference is, those Vols of yesteryear and their former coach knew who they were and how to win those games.
Fans went home happy instead of talking about what might have been.
This Tennessee team is still searching for the right rotations and the confidence to win the big games and seize the moment.
The only way to define Sunday’s game for the Vols was as a “missed opportunity,” and it had as much to do with the head coach’s inability to hit on the right combination on the floor in the final minute as it did on the players’ inability to execute.
Because when it comes right down to it, those two things go together.
SEC Country’s Mike Griffith and WNML’s Josh Ward discuss the basketball loss, and Jeremy Pruitt’s no-show at the game in today’s podcast.
Tennessee Rocky Top Podcast