COLUMBIA — It’s been a long time since Rick Barnes has coached a game at South Carolina. So long, that the last time he did, the Gamecocks were playing not in Colonial Life Arena — but up the street in the old Carolina Coliseum, now used as a practice facility.
That was Dec. 17, 1996, when Barnes was coaching a Clemson team ranked eighth nationally, and would go on to reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Nearly two decades later, Barnes returns to Columbia with a different team in a very different situation — a rebuilding Tennessee program that will try and slow USC’s push toward its first NCAA bid in a dozen years.
“I tell you what I’ve really enjoyed in watching (Tennessee) play this year, is watching Rick Barnes,” said USC head coach Frank Martin. “He looks like he’s 31 years old again on that sideline. He’s chasing guys around, and he’s got guys just really competing. He told me he’s really, really enjoying it. And watching him on film, and watching his teams play, tells me he’s really enjoying it.”
Now 61, Barnes remains best known in the Palmetto State for his four seasons at Clemson, which netted three NCAA bids. He left following the 1997-98 season for Texas, where he won more than 400 games and reached one Final Four. Fired after finishing sixth in the Big 12 in 2014-15, he surfaced with the Volunteers, who had cut ties with former coach Donnie Tyndall after one season due to NCAA violations at his previous school, Southern Mississippi.
Wednesday’s 9 p.m. game at USC (22-5, 9-5 SEC) will mark the first time Barnes has coached in the state of South Carolina since Clemson’s 1998 home finale, a victory over Georgia Tech. But Barnes and Martin became friends when both were in the Big 12, the former with the Longhorns and the latter coaching Kansas State.
“When you look at their team and what he’s done, I’m not surprised,” Barnes told reporters in Knoxville, Tenn. “We became good friends while he was at Kansas State, and his teams are tough (and) hard-nosed. They truly do personify his personality. He looks for a certain kind of player that he wants to have in his program. He believes in fighting you on every inch of the court.”
Tennessee (13-14, 6-8) will likely be without guard Kevin Punter, the SEC’s second-leading scorer, battling a stress fracture in his right foot. Punter scored 36 in the Vols’ Jan. 23 upset of USC in Knoxville. “I don’t see him playing, certainly, Wednesday night, but I have been fooled before,” Barnes said. “We are just going to monitor it day-to-day.”
USC is one game from clinching its first double-digit win total in SEC play since Darrin Horn’s first team in 2008-09. That squad was left out of the NCAA Tournament, as were eight other SEC programs with double-digit league win totals since the NCAA field was expanded to 68 in 2011.
But with a relatively strong RPI of 31st, the Gamecocks may be in position to avoid that fate. Saturday’s overtime victory over Florida vaulted USC back into a tie for second in the SEC, after a tumultuous week that included South Carolina’s first back-to-back losses of the season.
“Last week, I was worried about our team. I really was,” Martin said. “I thought we were fragile. I thought that Florida game could have pushed us in either direction. ... What I hope happens is, that game, and being able to figure out a way to overcome adversity, kind of gives us a confidence in each other again to go out there and finish this season strong.”