KNOXVILLE — Tennessee men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes heads to his first Sweet 16 in over a decade looking for another win against an opponent the Vols beat last season to signify their emergence as a national contender.
The Vols knocked off then-No. 18 Purdue 78-75 in overtime at the Battle 4 Atlantis in November 2017 to earn their first victory over a ranked nonconference opponent in three years. That triumph provided a spark for a 2017-18 season in which Tennessee won a share of the Southeastern Conference title after three straight years of finishing .500 or below.
Tennessee (31-5) and Purdue (25-9) meet again Thursday in a South Region semifinal at Louisville, Kentucky.
“That tournament in general is the tournament where I thought our guys realized that we can do this and play with these teams. ... Yeah, I do think it was a big boon for our program,” Barnes said Monday.
Barnes used to coach this deep into the NCAA tournament just about every year. He reached the Sweet 16 five times in a seven-year stretch at Texas from 2002-08, includ- ing a Final Four appearance in 2003 and regional final berths in 2006 and 2008. He also reached the Sweet 16 with Clemson in 1997.
But this marks his first time back in a regional semifinal since 2008. Barnes got there because his team regrouped in overtime to beat Iowa 83-77 on Sunday after blowing a 25-point lead.
“The fact is, you don’t take any of this for granted,” Barnes said. “You don’t. Because, one, it’s hard to get there. It’s hard to advance. So when you do get there, you hope to take advantage of it.”
This Sweet 16 appearance continues a career revitalization for Barnes, who was named the Henry Iba national coach of the year by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association on Monday.
Barnes was fired by Texas in 2015 before trying to stabilize a Tennessee program that was under upheaval. Cuonzo Martin left for California after taking Tennessee to the Sweet 16 in 2014 and was succeeded by Donnie Tyndall, who lasted just a year before getting fired during an NCAA investigation of his old school.
Tennessee posted a combined 31-35 record in Barnes’ first two seasons but is 57-14 the past two years with a roster that doesn’t include any former top-100 recruits.
“To be totally honest with you, I don’t think I had a vision or anything,” Barnes said. “I don’t. I just thought we said, ‘Hey, we’re just going to go to work and see what we can do.’ I always felt like that.
“You have to live one day at a time, and you have to get your players to buy into a work ethic.’
“There’s no magic dust you can sprinkle onto anything; it’s just getting the kind of guys you really want to coach and getting (them) into believing in each other and getting them to believe into what we’re trying to do and buy in to it.”
Many of the players on this year’s Tennessee team also were around for the struggles of Barnes’ first two years.
The top six players in UT’s rotation — SEC player of the year Grant Williams, Kyle Alexander, Jordan Bone, Admiral Schofield, Lamonte’ Turner and Jordan Bowden — have a combined 475 career starts.
Everyone who played over 15 minutes for Tennessee in last season’s game with Purdue is back this year. The Boilermakers’ only returning starter from that game is Carsen Edwards, who scored 21 points that day and collected 42 points Saturday in an 87-61 second-round blowout of Villanova.
Edwards has averaged 34 points in two NCAA tournament games to lead all players in the original 68-team field. Barnes said Turner would get the first shot at defending Edwards on Thursday.
“You’re going to have to work as hard as you can each possession and you’re going to have to defend because you have a guy that can go for 40 or 50 points on you and put a lot of pressure on you,” Barnes said.