The inevitable pairing in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, now in its ninth season, is finally here — on Saturday at the Erwin Center, the Texas Longhorns are hosting the No. 18 Tennessee Volunteers and former Texas head coach Rick Barnes, who spent 17 seasons coaching the Longhorns before he was dismissed in 2015.
So the game marks a belated opportunity for fans to honor Barnes, who was told by then-athletics director Steve Patterson to fire members of his coaching staff or lose his own job following a disappointing 20-14 2014-15 season that included a loss to Butler in the opening round of the NCAA. Barnes, standing on principle, declined an offer from staff members to quit and lost his own job instead.
“In my personal opinion, he didn’t get the exit that he deserved,” Texas coach Chris Beard said on Thursday. “So we welcome this game. We can’t wait to see coach and just thank him for everything he did for Texas basketball.”
Beard said that fewer than 1,000 tickets remain for Saturday’s game.
The decision to move on from Barnes ended the best coaching tenure in program history — the North Carolina native who was hired from Clemson in 1998 boasted a 402-180 (.691) record at Texas, the all-time winningest for the Longhorns, and led the program to 16 NCAA Tournament appearances and three Big 12 titles. For 13 straight seasons, Texas won 20 or more games under Barnes.
Guard TJ Ford, the signature recruit landed by Barnes early in his tenure, led Texas to the Final Four in 2002-03, beginning the golden era of Longhorns basketball as the program went to the Sweet 16 the following season and the Elite Eight in 2005-06 and 2007-08.
But the deep NCAA Tournament runs ended with that DJ Augustine-led team in 2008 and Barnes was never able to recapture the success, eventually falling victim to the high standards he established himself. Over the ensuing seven seasons, Barnes only managed three wins in the tournament and missed it entirely in 2012-13, losing in the first round of the CBI.
Barnes was only unemployed for four days, hired by Tennessee as the third coach in three seasons for a program in desperate need of stabilization. By increasing the win total in each of the first four seasons, Barnes did exactly that, earning Naismith Coach of the Year honors in 2018-19 after tying the school win record with 31 victories as the Vols reached the Sweet 16.
This year, Tennessee arrives in Austin with a 14-5 record ranked as the No. 14 team nationally in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric coming off wins in four of the last five games. Unsurprisingly, it’s a team built around its defense, ranking fifth in adjusted efficiency by turning opponents over on a full 25 percent of their possessions. Offensively, the Volunteers share the ball well and rebound 32.4 percent of their misses.
“Everybody evolves a little bit and adapts and changes a little bit, but his teams are still very physical,” said Texas assistant Rodney Terry, who also served in the same capacity under Barnes. “They guard you. They rebound. They share the basketball. And some of the things he does offensively are a little different than his tenure here, but there’s some staples too, as to what he does. He’s a little calmer on the sidelines now, he just sits there and kind of watches. Now we were used to he was fired up on the sidelines and I know he still has it, but he’s much, much more subdued on the sidelines.”
Uruguayan guard Santiago Vescovi leads Tennessee in scoring at 14.6 points per game by hitting 39.6-percent of his three-point attempts. Guard Kennedy Chandler chips in 13.5 points per game and averages a team-leading 4.9 assists.
Texas remains undefeated this season when holding opponents under 60 points (15-0) and still lead the nation in scoring defense (54.7 points per game allowed). And with two consecutive wins, the Horns have bounced back from losses in three of four games, overcoming a scoring drought of more than 10 minutes against the Cowboys last Saturday and then playing well on both ends of the court against the Horned Frogs on Tuesday.
Against another strong defensive opponent, if Texas can once again hit the offensive glass and get out in the open court effectively, it could help produce the type of easy baskets that are typically hard to come by against Tennessee. TCU likes to send numbers to the offensive glass, so that certainly aided Texas in producing fast-break points. Barnes isn’t likely to ask his team to be as aggressive, putting pressure on the Texas the guards to secure defensive rebounds and then push the pace.
KenPom.com gives Texas a 61-percent win probability with a projected score of 64-61.
How to Watch:
Time: 7:00 p.m. Central
Radio: Texassports.com affiliates
Odds: The Longhorns are four-point favorites over the Volunteers, according to DraftKings.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.