Tough loss to Purdue shouldn’t discount what Rick Barnes and Tennessee achieved


DETROIT — Rick Barnes was first out of the locker room of one of the best and toughest teams he’s ever coached, a team taking its first few gulps of realization — the season’s over, the quest’s incomplete — in barren silence. He had a smile on his face.

Barnes hugged a CBS producer. He gave nods to a few of the reporters waiting to go cut through that silence with questions for the Tennessee Volunteers on their 72-66 loss to Purdue in Sunday’s Midwest Regional final. He headed down a long hallway at Little Caesars Arena toward a news conference, trailed by three of his players. They walked single file as if in order of visible devastation on their faces — Josiah-Jordan James was first and still dampening the towel wrapped around his head with tears; Dalton Knecht had the red eyes of a recent cry; Zakai Zeigler was simply angry, silent, glaring.

There was a lot of that sentiment going around among folks who wanted the No. 2 seed Vols (27-9) to make the first Final Four in Tennessee men’s basketball history and keep the No. 1 seed Boilermakers (33-4) from their first national semifinal since 1980. But a tremendous year of performance from Barnes, starting a year ago when he set out to improve the roster of a Sweet 16 team, went all the way to the end with his comments on this frantic, physical, classic, devastating loss.

He did not complain. Barnes, on Easter Sunday, praised and thanked.

“I wish I could change the outcome for them,” he said, gesturing left to those three players. “But the fact that God has blessed me with the time I’ve had with these guys, it’s something I wish every coach could enjoy.”

Barnes got a few questions about the officiating in the game. He didn’t bite. He should be heeded on multiple fronts. Complaints about him as a coach in March are tired and ignore all he has done in this job, though his players wanted so badly to deliver him a second Final Four, 21 years after his first, at Texas. Complaints about the officiating in this game demonstrate a basic misunderstanding of how difficult it is to officiate the interior activity around Purdue’s Zach Edey, how dominant he is, and how basketball works.

Purdue won because the 7-foot-4, 300-pound Edey put together an all-time performance, 40 points and 16 rebounds, connecting on 13 of his 21 attempts from the floor and 14 of 22 from the line. He was national-player-of-the-year great. So was Knecht — 37 points, 14-of-31 from the floor, with three misses in the final three minutes that could have swung this the other way had they fallen. Two were clean looks from 3-point range, and they didn’t miss by much.

The third was a downhill dart to the rim with the Vols trailing 69-64 and 33 seconds left. A layup to make it a one-possession game looked certain, but Edey somehow managed to get in position to block it away. It was a fitting way for this to be decided, this tit-for-tat exhibition from great players who had 77 of the game’s 138 points and 27 of its 48 baskets.

“Yeah, we were going back and forth,” said Knecht, whose lone season in Knoxville as a Northern Colorado transfer made a good team great and made him a likely NBA first-round pick. “But for me, it’s (thanks to) my teammates for having the belief in me to go out there and keep shooting it and keep running plays for me and stuff like that.”

And yes, Edey had 22 free throws to Tennessee’s 11, making for a 33-11 edge overall at the line for the Boilermakers. That leaves Purdue with 913 free-throw attempts this season, second in the nation, while its opponents have just 519. Do you think that’s because there’s a mass conspiracy to advance the interests of a team that can create ratings gold in the Lafayette, Ind., area?

Or do you think it’s because fouling Edey is impossible to avoid, lest you enjoy watching him tower over you and gently drop the ball into the hoop from a couple feet away all day? Sure, the officials missed some calls — Edey got Tobe Awaka in the face one time with no whistle — and the sarcastic jeers from Vols fans who made up about 20 percent of the crowd were fitting when Edey finally got his first foul with 9:40 left in the game.

But he gets fouled much more than is whistled in a game. The work done to keep him from planting directly under the basket on every possession is much like Greco-Roman wrestling. Because it has to be. Tennessee freshman center J.P. Estrella would have been the primary non-Knecht story of this game for the 15 minutes of work he put in on Edey — it was impressive — but he was out there in part because starting center Jonas Aidoo simply couldn’t uproot Edey. He wasn’t playable in this game.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Purdue’s Zach Edey is difficult to defend. The 7-foot-4 star is even harder to officiate

Purdue got 33 foul shots Sunday because the Vols had to keep fouling Edey. The Vols only got 11 because the Boilermakers did not have to foul a team that was mostly shooting jump shots.

“He’s a difficult guy to guard against,” Barnes said of Edey, “but he’s a difficult guy for referees to officiate, too.”

And he’s elite, and so is his team, and the Boilermakers were a little bit better than the Vols when it mattered most. Barnes said his team should have no regrets coming out of this one, though it would be easy to wonder what might have been had the ball gone down for Zeigler — he was 1-of-8 from long range on an excellent shooting day otherwise for UT and a nine-point, eight-assist, dizzying-defense day for him.

What if Santiago Vescovi didn’t have the flu, keeping him out of Friday’s Sweet 16 win over Creighton and limiting him to 13 minutes Sunday? What if James could have hit a midrange shot to give his team the lead late, on a strong day for him, to cap a strong tournament for him, to complete five years of James and Vescovi acting as the heartbeat of this program?

“It’s hard to put into words the pain that I feel right now, but it’s even harder to put into words the joy and the happiness I’ve gotten from being around this team, this university for the past five years,” James said afterward, putting words to the look on his face. “These guys mean so much to me. I can’t really describe it, but I love them. I love them so much.”

What if the Vols didn’t lose at home to Kentucky in the regular-season finale, then to Mississippi State in the first round of the SEC tournament? The first No. 1 seed in school history likely would have been theirs, meaning a West Region path to Glendale, Ariz., and the Final Four without having to beat Edey and Purdue in what was essentially a home game for the Boilers. That’s the path Alabama took to its first-ever Final Four, while Vols fans continue to wait.

Knecht, James and Vescovi are gone now. That’s an NBA scorer and two mature human beings who go way beyond the norm for leadership. That’s a lot. Zeigler, Aidoo, Awaka, Jahmai Mashack and some promising young players are due back, and the transfer portal will surely help. But Knechts aren’t coming every summer.

Barnes turns 70 in July. He may never have another Tennessee team this good. He may never win a national championship or get back to the Final Four. But he has more NCAA Tournament wins with the Vols (nine) than any other coach, and he just won the SEC and reached the second Elite Eight in school history. He has made Tennessee men’s basketball matter. Sunday was more than a matchup of top teams. It was a matchup of top programs.

“I think when people think of college basketball,” Barnes said, “they know that Tennessee is going to be in the fight.”

Vols fans should no longer question that. They should hope he wants to stay in it.

(Top photo of Zach Edey and Dalton Knecht: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)





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