KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Of course Vols coach Rick Barnes realized Tennessee played six of the Elite Eight teams in the NCAA Tournament.
“And the fact we played seven teams that played in the Sweet 16, I’m thinking, you know what, maybe we’re a little bit closer than I thought we were,” said Barnes, who led the Vols to a 16-16 season despite being one of the most undersized and inexperienced teams in the nation.
Tennessee basketball results against Elite Eight teams:
vs. Oregon (Maui), Lost 69-65, OT
at North Carolina, Lost 73-71
vs. Gonzaga (Nashville), Lost 86-76
at Florida, Lost 83-70
vs. South Carolina (Knoxville), Lost 70-60
at South Carolina, Lost 82-55
vs. Kentucky (Knoxville), Won 82-80
at Kentucky, Lost 83-58
Take away those games against the Elite Eight teams, and the Vols are a respectable 15-9.
Barnes, however, wants no part of the watered-down schedule some teams play.
“Yeah, I’d schedule them all again knowing there were (six Elite Eight teams), and I look at our schedule next year and it’s equally tough, and maybe even more so,” Barnes told SEC Country on Saturday. “We go to Georgia Tech, we go to Wake Forest, and we have North Carolina coming here, and then you look at that tournament in the Bahamas and that field is loaded.
“If we want to be a national program, we have to play a national schedule.”
The Vols’ RPI peaked at 34 last season thanks in part to their schedule — which in addition to the seven Sweet 16 teams included a win over NCAA participant Kansas State.
The young Vols, however, could not escalate their play at the end of the season, and Barnes said that’s what all the Elite Eight teams have in common.
“The teams that continue to play, they just keep going to another level, there’s more they keep getting to, and we talk about that,” Barnes said. “You can never, ever, think you are there when you’re playing pretty good basketball — you have to continue to get better, because people around you will continue to get better, and I think the teams left, they’ve all got some experience being able to go through that.”
Tennessee began the season with nine newcomers, and when the season ended for the Vols in the SEC Tournament, there were four freshmen and a sophomore on the floor.
“We just didn’t have that experience to understand it when I said we have got to get to another level, in their mind they couldn’t understand,” Barnes said. “They knew they had worked hard, they knew they had prepared hard, but they didn’t understand how to get to the next level, and what it is, is that you have to keep working harder.”