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Rick Barnes may have seen the future of Tennessee basketball Thursday night in Madison Square Garden in New York.
And it ain’t him.
After watching young Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May, 46, dismantle the larger, beefier, more highly recruited, more expensive (via NIL) Tennessee players with a significantly less talented and cheaper roster, Tennessee fans have to wonder what it would be like to have May coaching their team.
It sure would be a lot more fun. And they might just be in the Final Four, which is where May and FAU are after knocking off No. 3 seed Kansas State 79-76 on Saturday. FAU (35-3) will play Saturday in Houston against the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 6 seed Creighton (24-12) and No. 5 seed San Diego State (30-6) at 2 p.m. on CBS.
No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic looked younger, faster and much more entertaining in beating the No. 4 seed Vols, 62-55, in the NCAA East Region semifinal. Florida Atlantic is just the third 9 seed in history to reach the Final Four after Penn in 1979 and Wichita State in 2009.
May has led FAU to its first four NCAA Tournament wins in history all this season and to its first Final Four. The Owls had one previous NCAA Tournament appearance in 2002. Tennessee has never gone to a Final Four through 25 NCAA Tournament appearances. Barnes has been to one Final Four as a head coach (Texas in 2003) and two Elite Eights (Texas in 2006, ’08) through 27 appearances at four schools.
Tennessee looked flat slow and slowly got flatter and incapable of significant scoring runs, which was the case throughout the season. Yeah, it was fun to watch the Euro Vols get the private school brats from Duke all dirty last week in the Mud game. But on Thursday, Tennessee looked stuck in its own mud.
And Barnes seemed incapable of impacting his offense with any strategies. That’s not his game. Defense is.
Florida Atlantic, which sounds like an airline by the way, flew by Tennessee in the second half. The Owls outscored the Vols 40-28 after the break to erase a 27-22 deficit and win soaring away. From the 12:52 mark of the second half when Tennessee took a 39-33 lead until 6:51 remained, Florida Atlantic outscored Tennessee, 18-2 for a 51-41 lead. And it was over.
“When they started scoring, our offense wasn’t very good,” Barnes said. That’s it?
Tennessee Offense Stalled Again
Well, you can say that again. Tennessee went nearly four minutes without a bucket, stuck on 39.
Yes, Barnes has been without his starting point guard for the last six games. Sophomore Zakai Zeigler tore his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) on Feb. 28 and was lost for the season. He was averaging 10.7 points, 5.4 assists and 2.0 steals a game. With him, Tennessee beat No. 3 seed Gonzaga by 13, No. 2 seed Texas by 11 and No. 1 overall seed Alabama by nine and was in the top 10 through much of the season. But it’s not like Zeigler he was Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell, by any means.
DOWN GOES BAMA TO SAN DIEGO STATE!
Still, Barnes and his team failed to adjust without Zeigler and seemed powerless for change as Florida Atlantic made its run.
“We had some breakdowns with certain players today that we just felt like they weren’t locked in as much as they needed to be,” Barnes said.
That’s it, Rick, blame your players.
“And then some guys were in arguably one of the biggest games of their lives, and you could just – the body language,” he continued. “We just didn’t feel like they were locked in as much as we needed them to be. You’d expect them to be, but it’s a big stage.”
It is partly a coach’s job to get your players “locked in,” Rick. And you can’t just “expect them to be.” The coach has to make sure.
Yes, it was a big stage, which has been Barnes’ problem at Tennessee and previously at Texas. He can get close to the big stage but can’t dance on it. Barnes finished 31-6 overall and 15-3 in the SEC in the 2018-19 season, but couldn’t get off the Sweet 16 stage, just like this season. In the 2017-18 season, he finished 26-9 and won the SEC at 13-5, but lost in the second round.
Close But No Final Fours, Except One For Rick Barnes
Another fine season this year at 25-11 and 11-7 in the SEC, and another fine Sweet 16 finish. Pretty good again, but not great. For the most part, that’s what Barnes was also at Texas – bridesmaids and near bridesmaids. There were 16 NCAA Tournaments in 17 years at Texas, but significant advancement only five times.
In 2007, Barnes had Kevin Durant, who won the Wooden Award, the Naismith Award and half a dozen other player of the year awards. Durant scored 30 with nine rebounds in a second round game against USC, but Barnes couldn’t even advance deep with Durant. The Longhorns lost to USC.
Tennessee fans are wondering if not now or very soon, when? Barnes is 68.
“But don’t ever, ever, ever, take for granted how hard it is to get here to start with,” Barnes said. “And then how hard it is to win a game and then another game, because it’s really, really hard.”
Well, alrighty then, but maybe there should be a change at Tennessee if it’s that hard.
Barnes has taken the Vols to five straight NCAA Tournaments after expertly rebuilding the program through his first two seasons in 2015-16 and 2016-17. He is 6-5 in the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee has still never reached a Final Four. And its only Elite Eight was in 2010 under Bruce Pearl.
Maybe, Barnes, at 68, has taken Tennessee as far as he can. Maybe, Tennessee needs some young blood, and a little more movement on offense.
Florida Atlantic Coach Dusty May Is Hot
Perhaps the guy right across the floor Thursday night is the answer. Dusty May, 46, coaches great, entertaining offense with enough defense and rebounding. The Owls are 12th in the nation in 3-pointers made a game with 9.7 just behind Alabama at 10.1. Florida Atlantic is No. 8 in scoring margin at 13.3.
That despite FAU’s 330th ranking in the nation in height.
Retired, two-time national champion coach Jay Wright’s breakdown of Florida Atlantic’s dismantling of Tennessee on TBS was something to see. Funny, Tennessee tried to hire Wright from Hofstra after the 2000-01 season, but he chose Villanova. Tennessee went with Buzz Peterson.
Basically, May spread Tennessee out with passing. When Tennessee moved closer in, FAU passed them back out. FAU waited to shoot when Tennessee was not under the goal as much as FAU was. This is why FAU managed 12 offensive rebounds despite an obvious height disadvantage. The Owls did the same thing Saturday with 14 offensive rebounds and 15 second-chance points.
“Finesse” Florida Atlantic scored 26 points in the paint on the Vols with 14 points off offensive rebounds. “Muddy” Tennessee scored 22 in the paint and 12 off offensive rebounds. So much for all that Euro Muscle.
“Their offensive rebounds were,” Barnes said and couldn’t finish the sentence. “Those were big. We normally don’t do that, but we did today.”
That’s the problems with Barnes’ teams in the NCAA Tournament. They frequently don’t show as well as they do in the regular season.
FAU played Tennessee’s game enough while playing its game for the most part. Tennessee could not play FAU’s game. FAU shot 42 percent and survived an off night from 3-point range (29.6 percent). Tennessee shot 33 percent overall and 26 percent on threes.
“Despite the score at the half, we felt like we were playing our type of game,” May said. Yes, you were.
“We got back to moving the ball,” he said. “We were playing with great physicality. And our guys, I think they really believe in what we do, and when it’s not working, they don’t panic.”
After the win over Kansas State, he echoed those statements.
“We’re No. 1 in heart and hustle,” he said. Corny, but true.
May truly has a nine-man rotation that at times is seamless.
“There is never any pressure on our Alphas to perform,” he said. “Our guys have a strong belief in our system.”
The White Brothers Are ADs At Tennessee And FAU
FAU just kept rotating and passing and spreading the Vols out. And the Vols, too often, just stood there in the mud.
“They just stay the course and trust over the course of 40 minutes that we’re going to figure it out,” May said.
That sounds fresh, which is what Tennessee needs.
Go young and go to Florida, Tennessee. It worked with the football program as Tennessee athletic director Danny White hired Central Florida coach Josh Heupel in 2021. White was previously Central Florida’s athletic director and hired Heupel there in 2018. So, it’s time for another Florida directional school’s coach to move north to Tennessee.
You saw how quickly Cinderella 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson coach Tobin Anderson got a new job for life changing money at Iona. May unquestionably saw that, too.
May makes just $430,000 a year at FAU with three years left on his contract with only a $400,000 buyout. Barnes makes an average of $5.7 million a year at Tennessee on a contract that runs through 2027.
It could happen.
Danny White’s brother is Brian White, who is Florida Atlantic’s athletic director. Another brother is Georgia coach Mike White, whom May coached under at Louisiana Tech from 2011-15 and at Florida from 2015-18 before getting the FAU job.
I think something could be worked out amid all this good brotherly faith.
One CommentLeave a Reply
Maybe there will be a bidding war between Tennessee and Bama.