It's a tradition unlike any other. No, not The Masters. Not even Jim Nantz doing promos of The Masters where he calls them "a tradition unlike any other." It's a Rick Barnes team losing in March.
Thursday night, the fourth-seeded Tennessee Volunteers became the latest in a litany of Barnes-led teams to bow out a bit too early in the NCAA Tournament. This time around, it was the mighty Florida Atlantic University Owls, a No. 9 seed from Conference USA, who had the honor of sending Barnes packing.
The Vols led by 5 at the half. The game crept along at a slow, creaky, unwatchable pace that tends to favor Tennessee's style and offend the eyes of people who enjoy seeing balls go in hoops. According to Kenpom, Tennessee had the best defense in the country this season. It excelled all year in grinding out games and making things difficult for its opponents.
Everything was going according to script until, suddenly, FAU started making shots.
Another Year, Another Early Exit
MICHAEL FORREST MONEY FROM DEEP
OWLS LEAD ?#MarchMadness @FAUMBB pic.twitter.com/HMRiPTLksf
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 24, 2023
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With about 10 minutes to go in the second half, FAU's Michael Forrest went on a personal 8-0 run to pull the Owls ahead. Any neutral fans in the Madison Square Garden crowd quickly shifted over to FAU, and every time the Owls hit a bucket, the pressure started to intensify on Tennessee.
For their part, the Vols just couldn't buy a bucket. They had a six-minute stretch in the second half where literally nothing fell; and they finished the game shooting just 33% from the field, including a pitiful 6 of 23 from 3-point range. Tennessee's offense was already limited this season; and when they lost point guard Zakai Zeigler to an injury in late February, it shifted from limited to super limited. Like there's only one Wu Tang album and the pharma bro is gonna buy it limited.
Once they fell behind in the second half, Tennessee never retook the lead. FAU closed them out at the free throw line, and the season is over for the Vols.
This season marked Barnes' 27th NCAA Tournament appearance with four different schools — Providence, Clemson, Texas and Tennessee. It's an impressive record of sustained success and will almost certainly place Barnes in the Hall of Fame someday. He's a highly respected coach, his programs have never had a whiff of controversy surrounding them, and he seems to be well-liked by colleagues and former players alike.
Still, in 27 NCAA Tournaments, Barnes-led teams have reached just three Elite Eights and one Final Four.
And it's not as if Barnes is leading a scrappy mid-major to a No. 13 seed and being bounced by a power conference school every season. That would be understandable — even admirable!
Usually, it's just the opposite. In Knoxville, Barnes has rebuilt a moribund Tennessee program into a consistent power in the SEC. His teams are usually ranked in the AP Top 25 for much of the season.
And then comes March.
Since 2018, Tennessee has earned a No. 5 seed (lost to No. 12 Oregon State in the first round), a No. 3 seed twice (lost in the second round to a No. 11 seed, twice), a No. 2 seed (lost to No. 3 Purdue in the Sweet 16), and this year a No. 4 seed (lost to No. 9 FAU). That is five tournaments in a row where Barnes' teams were upset in the NCAA Tournament. You know if Purdue is having success against you, you're doing something wrong.
Too small a sample size? OK. At Texas, Barnes' teams were upset in the first or second round seven times in his 18-year tenure. That's seven years where Texas was a No. 4 seed or higher and failed to make the Sweet 16 — including 2007, when the Longhorns had Kevin Durant, the best scoring forward in the history of basketball.
In fact, in 27 NCAA Tournaments, a Barnes team has only pulled off one upset. Back in 2002, his No. 6-seeded Longhorns defeated No. 3 Mississippi State to reach the Sweet 16.
Look, it's not fun to watch Barnes lose every season. He's not some cartoonishly evil character stalking the sidelines, scowling at referees, making everything about himself. In other words, he's not Coach K.
But our guy Rick needs to install a new offense! The old adage is that defense wins championships — and, sure, there's something to that. But you know what doesn't win championships? A complete inability to score the basketball.
Barnes is not going anywhere, and all it will take is one championship or one more Final Four appearance to alter his legacy for good.
On the other hand, another early exit would be pretty hilarious.