When the Vols take the court for their second regular season game Sunday afternoon against East Tennessee State, they will see a familiar face on the other sideline.
Longtime Tennessee assistant coach Desmond Oliver accepted the head coaching job at ETSU this past offseason after spending six years on Rocky Top with Rick Barnes.
Oliver was an important part in Tennessee’s recruiting during that time. He helped put together several good classes, including the 2020 class which was rated No. 4 in the country by ESPN.
Barnes said Oliver’s goal since arriving as an assistant at Tennessee was always to coach a Division I team one day, and his excellent relationship skills helped him land at position at ETSU.
“I'm excited for Des,” Barnes said. “From the time I got to know him, his goal was to be a Division I head basketball coach and he had the opportunity to interview for a number of different positions and ended up with a terrific job in East Tennessee. I think he would tell you he is really excited about his team.”
The Vols who played under Oliver shared a similar sentiment — nothing but admiration for the former Tennessee assistant.
“Just a great coach,” senior guard Victor Bailey Jr. said. “He always used to say I looked like Blade and he texted me the other day saying he was watching the movie and thought about me. He was a great coach, and I'm excited to see him again.”
Oliver’s career at ETSU did not get off the start he hoped for. The Bucs dropped their season opener last Friday against Appalachian State in Boone, North Carolina, 69-67.
ETSU led by as many as 10 points in the first half and by 7 points twice in the second half before Appalachian State came storming back and made it a nail biter in the end, draining a pair of free throws with just 11 seconds left to secure a 2-point win.
With Oliver being a student of Barnes for six years, ETSU shares many similarities to Tennessee, the biggest being the amount of threes it takes.
ETSU took 33 three-point attempts in the loss to Appalachian State, making only 10 of them. David Sloan made 3 from beyond the arc to pace the Bucs with 15 points, and Vonnie Patterson hit 3 treys as well off the bench. Early on, Barnes’ new philosophy to take open shots they’re given has carried over to an extension of his coaching tree.
“They have players coming back that had great success and there are certainly some things he will do that we do here, but he has also added some things he likes himself,” Barnes said. “From a personal standpoint, I am really excited for Des and his family that he has finally gotten the opportunity he has worked long and hard for a long time."
Of course, Tennessee has taken about as many threes as any team has in one game this season. The Vols attempted 40 three-pointers in their 90-62 win over UT Martin Tuesday night and set a program record for most made threes in a single game (17). Kennedy Chandler was a perfect 4-for-4 from deep.
Barnes and his staff have enough trust in the players that when they get an open look, they have the green light.
“We have a lot of talented shooters,” Bailey Jr. said. “So open looks, we obviously don't like the contested ones, so if we can swing it one more or pump fake and slide to get open shots, that's what we like. We have shooters and I think the coaches trust us to make good decisions, so just taking open looks.”
Tennessee’s offense may look a little different Sunday if John Fulkerson suits up for the first time this season. The sixth-year senior broke his left thumb in mid-October and missed the season opener because of it.
As recently as Friday, Fulkerson was set to practice with the team. Barnes was unclear of everything Fulkerson could physically do, but he did call Fulkerson “day-to-day.”
If Fulkerson gets significant minutes, it’s hard to see Tennessee still taking 40 three-point attempts a game. But he can changes the team in other important ways — the Vols hope on defense.
“I think it changes just because John is so dynamic,” Bailey Jr. said. “He's been a marquee guy for the University of Tennessee for many years and whenever you bring a guy like that back, he's going to impact us in a positive manner. We're just excited to have him back.”