Shortly after beating the Rice Owls in overtime last month on the day that former head coach Chris Beard was arrested on a felony domestic violence charge, Texas Longhorns head coach Rodney Terry, now the interim head coach, called his former boss and mentor in Austin, Rick Barnes, the Tennessee Volunteers head coach, to discuss the situation.
The message from Barnes to his former top assistant with the Longhorns for nine years surrounded Terry’s readiness for the moment and his ability to handle it, a meaningful exchange for a coach whose big break came when Barnes hired him from UNC-Wilmington in 2002 to return to the Big 12. Terry’s time on the Forty Acres led to head coaching jobs at Fresno State and UTEP.
“You better be prepared to be in that seat all year long and be prepared to will this team throughout the course of the rest of the season and you’re know than prepared for this opportunity, you’ve got 10 years under your belt, you’ve been successful at the level you’ve been doing and you’ve been coaching this team already. So, you’re prepared for this opportunity, you’re prepared for this season, so go ahead and go out and enjoy the ride,” Terry said Barnes told him.
When the game tips off in Knoxville on Saturday, however, the competitiveness of the two coaches will take over in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge as No. 10 Texas tries to upset No. 4 Tennessee, which boasts a 9-1 record at Thompson-Boling Arena this season and a No. 2 ranking in NET and in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric.
“You talk about one of the elite programs in the country right now, top five, possibly the top two in the country, a team that has the chance to make the Final Four — they’re Final Four good,” Terry said of Tennessee. “No. 1 defense in the country, they’ve got size, they’ve got shooters, they’ve got experience, they’ve got a little bit of everything you need in terms of being elite. So, to go in and compete on their home floor against that quality opponent, for us to go in and have success, obviously we’ve got to do some things on a very elite level ourselves, but it’d be an incredible resume game for ourselves if we can go in and get that done.”
But while Terry is tangentially focused on a resume that currently includes six Quad 1 wins and a 17-3 overall record that has the Longhorns sitting at No. 8 in the NET rankings — the game against the Volunteers is merely the game in front of the team with a chance to impact that resume — he isn’t focused on the resume he’s putting together as the interim head coach in his bid to earn the job more permanently.
“I love our team that we have — they believe in what we’re trying to get done in terms of the vision we have for this season and I’m a firm believer in living where your feet are and living in the moment,” Terry said. “Enjoy this season, this journey. Tomorrow’s not promised to us. We don’t know if we’re gonna be here tomorrow. We like to hope and think that and pray that we’re gonna be here tomorrow, but you soak up what you’re doing right now and enjoy this experience and this ride with this group. And that’s the way I know I’ve approached it all season long.”
For all the importance of the game singularly — a chance to bolster resumes for both teams without the pressure of the outcome impacting conference standings, it doesn’t carry the same weight as Barnes returning to Austin last year for the first time since he was fired following the 2014-15 season.
“First off, I think when we brought coach back here last year, I thought that was an incredible opportunity for the city of Austin, Longhorn Nation, to really get a chance to salute Coach Barnes. Coach didn’t get that kinda send off,” Terry said.
“I thought it was a great opportunity for the city to salute him up and what he did for this program here. I thought it was it was a great opportunity,” Terry continued.
The emotional evening at the Erwin Center concluded with a hard-fought 54-52 win by Texas defined by strong defense from the Longhorns but marred by 18 turnovers in what was otherwise an efficient shooting performance.
“Last year it was two teams that really kinda slugged it out a little bit in kind of a defensive game that night,” Terry said. “We were fortunate enough to make some big plays, make some big shots down the stretch to win that ballgame.”
The biggest shots for the Longhorns arguably came out of halftime as Texas extended a two-point lead at the break thanks to a 15-3 run to open the final 20 minutes, then hung on as Tennessee mounted a furious comeback from down 17 points with less than eight minutes remaining that ultimately fell short on a missed three-pointer before the buzzer.
This year, Texas looks a little bit different — instead of ranking No. 336 in adjusted tempo, the Longhorns are No. 74, playing faster to get easier looks and accepting higher-scoring games while still emphasizing defense.
“Playing faster means more possessions, so you have to be able to have a little give and take some nights where maybe you’re not holding a team to 50 points and you’re winning holding them to 65 or 70 points, but you look up and you’ve got 90 points, so, again, I think you give and take with that. We don’t want to compromise our defense. We want to continue to be a team that sits down and guards and get stops,” Terry said.
And while there has been some regression defensively since Beard was suspended, the Horns still rank No. 26 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Playing faster isn’t the only change from last season, though, as Barnes noted that Texas has made some in-season adjustments since Terry took over.
“We haven’t gone through a lot of drastic changes in terms of what we started out to do from the very beginning, but we also have evolved over the course of that time as a team offensively and defensively in doing things a little different from time to time,” Terry said.
On Monday, guard Marcus Carr said that “timelines just happened to sort of match up” between Terry taking over and his increased effectiveness ultimately producing the most efficient play of Carry’s lengthy college career with all six of his games of 20 or more points coming since Beard’s suspension. Carr has been particularly good in “winning time,” not necessarily the last few minutes of a game, but whenever the team feels like it’s a defining stretch.
And with ESPN’s matchup predictor giving the Longhorns a 15.4-percent chance of pulling off the upset, Texas will need Carr to make plays in winning time and for his teammates to help ensure those moments will even exist late in the game.
How to watch
Time: 5 p.m. Central
Odds: Tennessee is an eight-point favorite, according to DraftKings.