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Rick Barnes Isn’t As Bad in March As You’ve Heard

Vols basketball

You’ve heard it from the street corners, with people banging cups that say “WILL TALK FOR PUBLICITY” on the side.

You’ve heard it from every corner.

My God, you’re hearing it from your own friends!

(Jon Reed would suplex Chris Vernon into oblivion.)

Anyway, the theme is pretty straight forward, and you’ll hear it a ton now that Tennessee is poised to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years: Rick Barnes can’t win in March. It’s a well-worn truth, and at face value, perhaps you’d be willing to accept it: Barnes is 3-6 in his last six visits to the NCAA Tournament. He took teams with Kevin Durant and Myles Turner to second and first-round exits, respectively. How can a man who was at Texas make one Final Four? It boggles the mind!

And yet it shouldn’t, because the truth lies a bit to the left of where many think it does. Rick Barnes is no massive underachiever in March. He’s no Coach K, who owns an astounding four first-weekend exits as a 3 seed or higher since 2007. Or a Bill Self, who’s failed to outperform his seed expectation five years in a row. Heck, the coach who ranks right next to him in Performance Against KenPom Expectation is Will Wade.

It’s true that Barnes has produced four underperformances in his final five years at Texas – as a coach of teams expected to win about 5.4 games, he won two. That’s not great! It also politely ignores Barnes’ history of overperformance in previous years:

  • 2008 (2 seed): expected wins 2.4; actual wins 3
  • 2006 (2 seed): expected wins 2.4; actual wins 3
  • 2004 (3 seed): expected wins 1.8; actual wins 2
  • 2003 (1 seed): expected wins 3.4; actual wins 4
  • 2002 (6 seed): expected wins 1.1; actual wins 2

In fact, when seeded 4 or higher, Barnes actually outperforms expectations on average by about 0.2 wins each trip.

  • 1997 (4 seed): expected wins 1.6; actual wins 2
  • 2003 (1 seed): expected wins 3.4; actual wins 4
  • 2004 (3 seed): expected wins 1.8; actual wins 2
  • 2006 (2 seed): expected wins 2.4; actual wins 3
  • 2007 (4 seed): expected wins 1.6; actual wins 1
  • 2008 (2 seed): expected wins 2.4; actual wins 3
  • 2011 (4 seed): expected wins 1.6; actual wins 1

That’s an average of 2.3 wins per year against an expectation of 2.1. Far from the worst, and certainly far from the idea of Barnes as a poor coach in March. Now, it is true that as a 5 seed or lower, Barnes has historically been mediocre or worse: an average of 0.3 wins against an expectation of 0.8 wins. That’s indeed poor. But if Tennessee is essentially guaranteed a 4 seed or higher, we should focus on his performances with similarly very good or better teams.

Against his frequent March contemporaries, Barnes fares just fine as well. Only 12 coaches have appeared in at least 75% of the last 16 NCAA Tournaments; Barnes is one, and his PASE (Performance Against Seed Expectation) ranks 7th. The coaches below him? Mark Few, Coach K, Bill Self, Jay Wright, and Bob Huggins. If you’re beating those guys, I think you’re alright. Plus, Barnes has been awarded a 1 or 2 seed to play with three times ever; he made at least the Elite Eight all three years. That’s a slightly better ratio than Coach K’s four in 12 (33%) or Jay Wright’s two in six (also 33%).

Lastly, Barnes may find himself in a truly unique position this year: playing for the second time ever from the most overperforming seed in the tournament field. Three seeds have won an astounding ten more games than expected over the last 16 years. They make the Sweet Sixteen at almost the exact same rate as two seeds. Not a bad starting position, right?

The point of this isn’t to make you believe that Rick Barnes is, by any means, a massive overachiever in March. He still took Kevin Durant to a 4 seed and a Round of 32 exit. He somehow squeezed an 11 seed out of Myles Turner. None of that matters because, beyond all rhyme and reason, he’s gotten 2017-18 Tennessee to a position no fan, player, or coach dreamed of in October. If Rick Barnes is just fine and good and solid in March – which he probably is, based on the research – Tennessee fans shouldn’t be all that fearful of a premature exit.

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