Tennessee wants to end NCAA Tournament drought next season
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee coach Rick Barnes doesn't want his players to get accustomed to ending their season this early.
The Volunteers finished 16-16 and won't be playing in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT for a third straight season. They haven't ended a year with a winning record since their 2014 Sweet 16 appearance.
This also marks the first time in over two decades that Barnes has spent back-to-back seasons without reaching the NCAA Tournament. Barnes' teams at Clemson and Texas had earned 19 NCAA Tournament bids in the 20 seasons before he took over Tennessee's program in 2015 .
''We're trying to teach our guys how hard it is to get into this,'' Barnes said Monday. ''I want them to know it's something they're going to have to earn.''
That's why Barnes already was trying to teach his underclassmen about the upcoming season shortly after the 2016-17 campaign ended.
Tennessee's disappointment was evident in the locker-room atmosphere following its 59-57 Southeastern Conference tournament loss to Georgia last week. When he saw his players bounce back emotionally shortly thereafter, Barnes wondered why that heartbreak didn't linger and mentioned it to his team.
''I want them to feel the sting of what it's like when you don't meet your goals,'' Barnes said. ''I know one thing, it took me a couple of days before I even wanted to watch TV and watch another basketball game. I want them to feel that. I want them to understand there's no givens in what we do. It's why it's called competition. We've got to go out and embrace the competition.
''I've been doing this a long time, and the best people I've been around, they don't let losing just slip off their back 30-40 minutes after a game. It stays with them a little bit.''
Tennessee actually outperformed preseason forecasts, as the Vols got the No. 9 seed in the SEC tournament after being picked to finish 13th in the league. More will be expected of Tennessee next season.
The Vols must replace leading scorer Robert Hubbs III, but senior reserve forward Lew Evans was the only other upperclassman on this year's roster by the end of the season. Tennessee regularly started three freshmen, including leading rebounder and second-leading scorer Grant Williams. An international exhibition tour this summer should help this young team get a jump start on the 2017-18 season.
Tennessee needs to find stability at the point guard position next season. Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner and Shembari Phillips all took turns handling the point this year with varying degrees of success.
The Vols also must figure out how to avoid the late fades that have marked each of Barnes' first two seasons on the job. Tennessee lost seven of its final 10 games in 2015-16 and dropped six of its last eight games this season.
Injuries have played a role in those late struggles. Tennessee didn't have leading scorer Kevin Punter Jr. down the stretch in 2015-16. This year, Hubbs played at far less than full strength due to a knee injury and guard Jordan Bowden played just one minute in a three-game stretch due to pneumonia the last month of the season.
But it's also worth noting that Tennessee started struggling this year shortly after it entered February as a legitimate contender for an NCAA bid. The Vols must respond better when the stakes get higher next season.
''I don't think we were tough enough because February is a tough month,'' Barnes said. ''I think it's a grind. I think people who finish strong are mentally tough. ... To get where we want to go, I do think we've got to get mentally tougher. How do you do that? I think you raise the bar in everything that you do.''
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