Can Rick Barnes take Tennessee basketball to a place it's never been before?

Tennessee's Grant Williams (2) is an extension coach Rick Barnes on the floor.Randy Sartin/USA TODAY

No. 1 Tennessee (22-1) has never been to the Final Four. Is this the team that gets there?

It was a real-life lesson that Rick Barnes never forgot.

In the early 1970s the reigning power in North Carolina high school basketball was Charlotte’s South Mecklenburg. With players like Bobby Jones and Walter Davis, the Sabres won four state championships in a seven-year period. In fact, during the 1971 and 1972 seasons South Mecklenburg went a combined 52-1.

The lone loss?

That was to Hickory High School, a team that had not won a game.

“We didn’t win another game,” said Barnes, a player on that Hickory team. “They didn’t lose another game.”

So the lesson that sticks with Barnes almost 48 years later—is simple: Every time you lace ‘em up you can beat anybody. You can also lose to anybody.

“If you bask in what you’ve done to this point you can lose focus,” said Barnes.

Today, Rick Barnes is in his 33rd year as a head coach. He has taken 23 teams to the NCAA Tournament, reaching the Final Four with Texas in 2003.

He is the coach of the nation’s No. 1 team in Tennessee (22-1), which enters this week’s play on an 18-game winning streak, the longest in college basketball. After a Wednesday date with South Carolina in Knoxville, the Volunteers go on the road for a Saturday meeting with No. 5 Kentucky (20-4). ESPN’s College Game Day will be there. Focus—laser like focus—will be the watchword of the day.

“You have to be locked in on your next opponent,” said Barnes, in his fourth season at Tennessee after leading Texas to the NCAA Tournament 16 times in 17 years. “We don’t have any magic dust here.”

This time of year is when coaches earn their money. There are eight regular-season games before the SEC Tournament starts in Nashville on March 13. If the NCAA Tournament started tomorrow, Tennessee would be the No. 1 or No. 2 (behind Duke) seed. The Volunteers are that good.

“They really don’t have any glaring weaknesses,” said ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes, who has spent considerable time with the Volunteers this season. “They check all the boxes. I’ve seen a lot of really good cultures in college basketball but none of them better than Tennessee.”

Tennessee’s basketball culture under Rick Barnes is decidedly old school.

“He coaches them really hard,” said Dykes. “During practice he’ll get on a player like Grant Williams just to send a message. There is a business-like maturity about them.”

Williams, who is trying to become the player since Corliss Williamson of Arkansas to repeat as SEC Player of the Year (1994-95), was weighing opportunities from Harvard and Yale when Barnes convinced him to come to Tennessee. He is a throwback to the great inside post players like Charles Barkley and UNLV’s Larry Johnson.

“They bounce pass and feed the post better than any team in the country,” said Dykes of Williams, who is averaging 20.1 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. “He’s a lot stronger than he looks. He’s got great hands and when he takes a turnaround shot, you cannot block it.”

And when it comes to being old school, Williams is an extension of Barnes on the floor. He is all business.

Back on Jan. 23, playing its first game at the nation’s No. 1 team, Tennessee was in a dogfight at Vanderbilt and needed for Williams to take over. He did. His line in the 88-83 overtime win in Nashville: 10 of 15 from the field, 43 points, 23 of 23 from the free throw line, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block.

“I’d say that he did the job for us tonight,” Barnes told reporters after the game.

Williams sets the tone for a talented cast.

Admiral Schofield is an athletic 6-6, slasher who can explode in any game. He had 30 points in 30 minutes when Tennessee beat now-No. 3 Gonzaga 76-73 back in December. In the second meeting of the season with Florida on Feb. 9, Schofield helped fuel a 12-2 run with a couple of high-energy dunks.

Jordan Bone “is as good a point guard as there is in the game,” said Dykes. He averages 6.6 assists and only two turnovers per game.

Bottom line: Tennessee goes at least six deep in players who can score 20 points on a given night which is a nice element to have when the survive-and-advance NCAA Tournament rolls around.

Remember that while Tennessee has a significant men’s basketball tradition, the Volunteers have never been to a Final Four. Last season’s team, a No. 3 seed, was good enough to get there but got knocked off by Sister Jean and the Cinderella run of Loyola-Chicago.

The Vols made their only Elite Eight appearance in 2010 but lost to Michigan State 70-69.

Tennessee, whose only loss was to Kansas (87-81 OT) in Brooklyn on Nov. 23, is one of a handful of teams that is good enough to win the NCAA Tournament. Right now that list also includes Duke, Virginia, Kentucky, Gonzaga, and maybe Michigan, said Dykes.

But can this team maintain focus and take Tennessee basketball to a place it has never been?

We’re going to find out a lot on Saturday when the Volunteers go to Rupp Arena. They will play a Kentucky team (20-4) that saw a 10-game winning streak come to an end Tuesday night when LSU (controversially) tipped one in at the buzzer to win 73-71.

The Vols, which play South Carolina at home Wednesday night, are poised to be upset. Stay tuned.

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