Barnes

Coach Rick Barnes during the game against Florida on Saturday February 29th, 2020 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Tennessee enters the NCAA Tournament looking like it might have turned a corner in its last three games, earning two wins over Florida and losing a tight game to SEC champion Alabama. The late push earned the Vols a No. 5 seed in the Midwest region that will match them up with No. 12 seed Oregon State.

Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes, usually his team’s harshest critic, has been high on his team in the last week, believing he knows what he will get out of his team every night after an inconsistent regular season. 

Despite blowing a 15-point second half lead to the Crimson Tide, Barnes was upbeat afterward, believing his team is starting to peak at the right time and may be poised for an NCAA Tournament run.

“The last couple weeks it’s just the attention to detail with our scouting reports,” Barnes said of the recent difference in his team. “Sometimes it takes you longer to get there. We’ve tried to get guys to hone in on exactly the nuts and bolts of what we’re trying to do.”

“A group of guys I’d like to coach for a long time. Our team was unbelievable during the (Alabama) game. The guys on the bench were locked in. They knew exactly what we were talking about. … We play hard. There aren’t many games this year— again we play hard consistently, but it was just an attitude and airiness about us on the bench. All that stuff to where you feel like, you know what, this team gets it.”

The fifth-seeded Vols first test will come Friday at 4:30 p.m. ET when they face PAC 12 Tournament champion Oregon State. The game will take place at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana and will be broadcast on TNT. 

The Beavers weren’t even on the NCAA Tournament bubble after a 14-12 regular season. However, Oregon State hit its stride at the perfect time, winning the PAC 12 Tournament as the No. 5 seed. 

“Oregon State finished as strong as any team in their conference,” Barnes said. “They beat Oregon, UCLA and Colorado — I think — in that order which that tells you how well they’ve been playing. A terrific team that’s been coached well. They’ve gotten better, and you said it, they’re playing their best basketball at the right time.”

Tennessee opened as a nine-point favorite over Oregon State, but the Beavers proved last weekend in Las Vegas that they’ve found another gear.

If Tennessee gets past the Beavers, they will meet the winner of the Oklahoma State versus Liberty game in the round of 32. 

The Cowboys enter the tournament playing their best basketball of the season, winning eight of their last 10 games, including a Big 12 Tournament semifinal win over one-seeded Baylor. Making its recent run even more impressive is that eight of Oklahoma State’s last 10 games have come against ranked teams.

No. 4 seed Oklahoma State enters the NCAA Tournament with a 20-8 record and are led by freshman guard Cade Cunningham, the projected No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA Draft. The Cowboys will face No. 13 seed Liberty, the champions of the ASUN, who enter the big dance with a 23-5 record.

If Tennessee were to make it to the Sweet 16, they would likely face a daunting task in No. 1 Illinois, though Georgia Tech and Loyola-Chicago are also potential opponents.

No matter who Tennessee faces, Barnes is confident the Vols are up to the task.

“I think we’re good enough to play anybody and beat anybody in the tournament,” Barnes said. “I really believe that. That’s the honest truth.”

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