In his previous 28 years as a head coach, Rick Barnes has never lost more than 18 games in as season.
He went 14-17 in his fourth season at Providence, in 1991-92. Then bounced back with two 20-win seasons, before taking over at Clemson, where he averaged 18.5 wins over four seasons.
At Texas, Barnes missed the NCAA tournament once in 17 years, going 16-18 in 2012-13 and ending the season with a first-round loss in the CBI. He averaged 23.6 wins per season in 17 years leading the Longhorns.
With two games left in his first season at Tennessee, Barnes has at least three games left to help correct his team’s 13-16 (6-10 SEC) record.
There’s Vanderbilt tonight and Ole Miss on Saturday, Senior Day at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Truth be told, as Barnes told it during his press conference Monday, there are a lot of could’ve-beens on the schedule.
“I probably have dealt more with my own personal frustrations and patience in the last couple weeks because, you know what, you look back and see the what-ifs,” Barnes said. “This, that or whatever.”
Tennessee led by 14 points at Alabama with 14 minutes to play. The Crimson Tide closed on a 30-9 run. The Vols led by 14 at halftime at TCU. The Horned Frogs took off the in the second half as the visitors collapsed.
The lead was 48-33 in the second half against SEC-leading Texas A&M, before the Aggies outscored the Vols by 21 down the stretch.
It was a double-digit lead in the first half at Butler on Dec. 12. A week later, there was a rally from down 16 to take the lead in the second half against Gonzaga in the Battle in Seattle at KeyArena.
Tennessee trimmed a 16-point deficit down to one against George Washington in the Barclays Center Classic in November.
All of the above is proof of effort. None of the above ended in the win column.
“Overall, I do know this group of guys have played and tried really hard,” Barnes said. ” … Losing is not very much fun. It’s not.
“I have always wanted to enjoy this time of year knowing that you are playing for something and being up for a postseason bid and getting excited about all of that.”
For 19 of the last 20 years, a team coached by Barnes has been playing for NCAA tournament seeding during the stretch run of the season. Barnes himself hasn’t missed the postseason since that 14-17 season at Providence 25 years ago.
Without the services of senior point guard Kevin Punter Jr. (foot), and the status of Robert Hubbs III (bruised knee) in question, this postseason won’t include Barnes, barring the improbable.
Without Punter or Hubbs Saturday against Arkansas — a team that entered Thompson-Boling Arena 1-11 away from Fayetteville — the Vols fell 75-65, their first home loss Jan. 20.
“What was disappointing in the game Saturday — and we told this to our team — is that we felt with Robert not playing, (they) were just holding on,” Barnes said. “That is not fun coaching.
“Even as we said at the beginning of the year, there will be every game we played where we look back and see that if we took care of the things we can control, we would win games.”
The holding on now is for seeding in the SEC tournament, with Tennessee looking to avoid the 12-13 game on Wednesday. First the Vols have to control the controllable.
“That is what we talked about (on Sunday) with our team,” Barnes said. “The things that we are doing wrong we can still control. But we have to do it.
“We ran out of time in the regular season because we’re still talking about guys still doing the things that they should be doing — being consistent going to the offensive boards, being consistent defending, being in help position. The things that truly can be controlled.
“That is where patience and frustration get tried.”
The third Tennessee coach in three seasons, Barnes knew frustrations were part of the job description. At least while building his new program from scratch.
“That is the tough part of it, if you love what you do, you want to win,” Barnes said. “I don’t care if people think the deck is stacked against you or not.
“We have seen enough this year with this team that if we get everyone playing the way they need to play, just like you go back to the game Saturday with Hubbs not playing, we needed some other guys to really step up to a different role and take it on.
“We didn’t get that.”
Grant Ramey covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at twitter.com/GrantRamey