How Rick Barnes learned to love transition basketball

Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes looked like a college professor as he stood, remote control in hand, in front of the giant screen in the Vols’ film room on Monday.

He was there to show the media the way his team will play this season, on both ends of the floor. But for more than an hour, Barnes concentrated on offense, to the exclusion of defense, which, in winning everywhere he’s been in a 27-year career as a head coach, had been his calling card.

The 61-year-old Barnes hasn’t forsaken D, to be sure. It’s just that, as a lifelong student of the game, Barnes has gotten a lot of satisfaction out of tweaking—and ramping up—his offensive philosophy.

“To be quite honest, when you stay in it as long as I have, defense can get a little boring,” Barnes said. “Offensively, you love tinkering with it and doing some things.”

Tennessee fans are going to love the results of Barnes’ tinkering. Suffice it to say the new 30-second shot clock will never be a factor for the Vols, who will seek to squeeze off a good shot within five to seven seconds. But don’t even call it run and gun.

“It’s not as extreme as it sounds,” associate head coach Rob Lanier said. “If you’re running, an open shot presents itself, and if you’re open and set, we want you to take those shots.”

“The key is catching the defense before it sets up,” assistant coach Chris Ogden said. “Once the defense is set, it’s harder to score. Realistically, as a college athlete, you should be able to get down the floor in four seconds. In those four seconds, you’re looking for a layup. In the next three seconds, you’re looking for a wide-open shot.”

Barnes had plenty of examples during his video presentation. In the Vols’ break, the first option is “ball ahead,” as Ogden put it. To illustrate, Barnes dialed up a recent practice where makeshift point guard Kevin Punter spotted freshman post Kyle Alexander bolting ahead of the pack. One perfectly timed pass later, the long-limbed Alexander, who runs faster than most guards, laid the ball off glass for two points.

The ball-ahead play will be the most desirable result of Tennessee’s transition game. But good teams will seek to take that away, and if they do, Punter’s decision making will be of paramount importance. Option No. 2 in the break is Punter getting down the floor and into the lane, where he’s free to probe the defense. Barnes has encouraged him to get to the rim as often as opposing teams will let him, but if his path is blocked, his four teammates will be in position.

It seems likely Alexander will start at the five; his job in the break is to flash into the lane, with his back to the baseline, and post. The other three Vols will have fanned out beyond the 3-point line.

“If you’ve got shooters, balling ahead makes your transition game that much tougher,” Odgen said. “Sometimes, the best 3s come in transition. Spacing comes in the break. You’re running, but running in space where everyone knows where you are and can have their own space to work with.”

Barnes’ break has been constantly evolving over the years. For the majority of his career, he thought defense was the key to winning. But after legendary former Indiana coach Bobby Knight took over at Texas Tech from 2001-08 and Texas had to play the Red Raiders twice a year, Barnes realized his teams had to start generating more offense.

“You knew you had to score 80-85 points to [beat Texas Tech],” Ogden said. “They didn’t have the pros we had, or Kansas had. But they got to the [NCAA] tournament. Most of us thought of Bobby Knight as this defensive guru, but he was an offensive genius.”

Barnes had been fortunate enough to face Knight before, when he was an assistant at Ohio State.

“In my career, I was able to coach against coach Knight and [North Carolina coach] Dean Smith,” Barnes said. “To this day, I think those guys were the very best offensive coaches. When I broke into the profession, they were at the top of their careers, and I made an effort to study them. What really impressed me about them was, how they, by the end of their careers, had changed to a degree. What I took from that was they loved the game and kept trying to improve what they were doing.”

Seeing Knight’s teams run offense at Texas Tech sent Barnes on a voyage of discovery. There were conversations with Paul Westhead—whose Loyola Marymount teams led Division I in scoring in 1988 (110.3 ppg), ’89 (112.5 ppg) and ’90 (122.4) and tried to squeeze off shots as fast as they could—and Davidson coach Bob McKillop, who worked with Barnes when they were both young assistants at Davidson and has become one of the premier teachers of the fast break in the country.

Barnes took what he learned and added it to his playbook, and occasionally there were happy accidents that helped give him a greater understanding of the nuances of pace, or spacing. One of those occurred last season, when Barnes’ Texas team practiced at the New York Nets’ Barclays Center.

“When I got back to the hotel and started watching the practice tape, I thought, ‘man we had great spacing today.’ ” Barnes said. “Then it dawned on me they were playing off the NBA 3-point line. It’s a totally different game.”

There’s no doubt Barnes’ new players love to play fast.

“It’s a quick offense,” Punter said. “[Barnes] wants us to rebound the ball and push it. For me to see the flow and hit teammates on the run, constant running up and down the floor, that’s good for the team.”

“For us to run the system, we have to be in really good shape,” said senior Armani Moore, who’ll help Punter with ball-handling responsibilities after spending last season as an undersized four man. “It will keep the defense on its heels, and they can never relax. If we can take good shots and hit good shots, then the defense will have to compete with us, rather than us having to compete with them.”

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