NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s Robert Hubbs was the No. 1-ranked player in the Volunteer State in 2013.
The nation’s No. 4 shooting guard, also ranked as the 20th-best player in the nation coming out of Dyer County High School, Hubbs was expected to be the in-state player who could keep the Vols’ program relevant.
On Wednesday, Hubbs sat in Bridgestone Arena and predicted he would be in the NBA, when asked what he would be doing a year from now.
“That’s my dream and my goal,” said Hubbs, who failed to earn any preseason All-SEC honors on a Vols team picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams.
“What has to happen is, I have to lead this team deep into March,” he said. “If my team is still playing in March, and I’m doing what I need to be doing and my numbers are good, I’ve got a chance.”
But if Hubbs doesn’t play with more heart and effort than he has shown in previous seasons, he might not even be starting, according to his coach.
“I even told Robert this week, his position is up for grabs, too,” coach Rick Barnes said while making a point about the uncertainty of the Vols’ lineup.
Dose of reality
Barnes deals in reality, and he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to his assessment of the soft-spoken 6-foot-5, 207-pounder.
“The biggest thing is he has put more time in the gym, but to get to the heart of the matter, he’s going to have to carry it over to the court where he plays much harder, where he is out of his comfort zone,” Barnes said at the SEC Basketball Media Day.
“He can defend, he has proven that to us in practice, if he wants to lock in he can do it, he can score the ball, but it’s just a matter of him playing harder than he’s ever played,” he said. “I think there’s another level to him that he can get to if he’s willing to do that.”
To be fair, Hubbs has had to deal with a great deal of adversity beyond his control since graduating high school with offers from Duke, Memphis and Florida, among others.
Hubbs’ freshman season was derailed when he underwent season-ending surgery in January of 2014 to repair a torn labrum.
Three months later, coach Cuonzo Martin stunned Hubbs by leaving Tennessee after guiding the team to the Sweet 16.
Hubbs, despite speculation he might transfer, stayed at Tennessee.
Eight months later, with new coach Donnie Tyndall at the helm, Hubbs underwent knee surgery on account of chronic swelling.
Then came the pain of another coaching departure, Tyndall leaving amid a cluster of NCAA violations, setting up Hubbs to play for this third coach in three years.
Hubbs has yet to be the player Tennessee thought it was getting, but the Vols’ basketball program hasn’t exactly given him a fair shake, either.
Hubbs admits at times his career at Tennessee has been a whirlwind.
“It felt like it wasn’t real after Coach Martin left after we made the Sweet 16,” Hubbs said. “Coach Tyndall … It felt like it was never going to end. I was wondering what was going on, clueless like everyone else.”
Barnes let Hubbs know what was going on quickly last season, and he has continued to be direct in his criticism and demands.
“At the end of last season, I sat down with him and told him you’re the only senior, but we’re not going to wait on you,” Barnes said. “I said, ‘I think you should be one of the best players in the league, but you’re not going to be there unless you’re one of the hardest workers in the league.’
“You don’t mistake activity for achievement.”
Tennessee sophomore Admiral Schofield said he has seen a difference in Hubbs from the time he arrived on campus.
“He’s in the gym more and he’s working harder,” Schofield said during Rocky Top League play last summer. “Coach Barnes is taking the initiative to get on him, and he’s embraced the challenge and he’s doing more than what’s asked, and that’s what we need is a leader in him.
“He’s working hard, he’s not that vocal, but he puts in the work and everyone respects him.”
One of the ways Barnes challenged Hubbs was to make 350 NBA 3-pointers.
“For a couple of days I didn’t think he liked it,” Barnes said, “but I think it’s something he bought into.”
Hubbs said he came to embrace the 3-point shooting work so much that he changed things up to make the work even more challenging last spring and summer. Instead of just 350 makes, Hubbs required himself to make eight in a row from seven different spots on the floor, and if he missed, he had to return to the previous shooting station.
Former Vol Bobby Maze, who came to Tennessee as a highly-ranked junior college All-American, said he saw Hubbs make big strides this summer.
“I know Hubbs spent a lot of time in the gym in the offseason, him and Lamonte Turner doing what they need to do,” Maze said. “You have to look at it and be fair. There have been coaching changes, and one guy gets you to play one way, and then the next guy coaches you up to play another way.
“The hype he came in with, it was a gift and a curse. But you see Robert, you talk to his teammates, and he’s become one of the hardest workers.”
Hubbs shrugged during a summer interview when asked about the coaching turnover his first three years at Tennessee.
“You could say it has been an experience, and not too many people can say they have had three different coaches their first three years, but everything happens for a reason, and I feel blessed to be with Coach Barnes,” Hubbs said. “After that torn labrum my freshman year, it took me seven months to adjust my shot and find that groove. I’m back to that level now.”
Hubbs’ numbers won’t impress anyone. He’s still yet to score more than 20 points, grab as many as 10 rebounds or have more than five assists in a game.
Last season was his best, and he ranked third on the team in scoring with 10.6 points per game, shooting only 23.9 percent from 3-point range and 73.9 percent from the free-throw line.
But teammates like Turner are buying in that it will be a different Hubbs that takes to The Summitt court in Thompson-Boling Arena this season.
“Yes, Robert has a laid-back personality, and he can come off as soft, but really, he wants it,” Turner said last summer. “Coach Barnes has said Robert is one of the most talented guys he has ever coached.”
And that’s why Barnes won’t accept anything less than Hubbs’ best on the court.
“ I know what I can do, and it has been my best offseason,” Hubbs said. “It’s my last year, and I’m ready to show the world what I can do. I’ve got to show the world what I can do.”