Tennessee's upset of Purdue is further proof Rick Barnes is turning Volunteers around

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Every single Big Conclusion drawn from Thanksgiving-week college basketball tournaments can be rebutted with three simple words: It's only November.

So take this with a grain of salt.

But this could be the year when, finally, Tennessee basketball is back.

On Wednesday, in the opener of the Battle 4 Atlantis, Rick Barnes' Volunteers absolutely got after it for 40 minutes plus overtime against a deep, long, experienced Purdue team that is ranked No. 18 in the AP Top 25 poll in a game that felt more like March than November.

Tennessee defeated Purdue 78-75 and you can toss out all the caveats that you want: That Tennessee had a couple good wins last year, too (notably over Kentucky). That the win was as much Purdue losing its intensity and focus in spurts as it was Tennessee outhustling and outrebounding the Boilermakers. And that, yes, it's only November.

But you can't come away from Wednesday's upset without being impressed by a team that was given little chance to compete in the preseason, when they were picked to finish 13th in the SEC.

"The only time that's ever brought up is when I get mad at them," Barnes said. "I tell them they were picked there for a reason. But we really don't talk about it. Because we decided we're going to set our own standard."

That standard seems to be pretty simple: Work harder and be more physical than their opponents.

"We really showed the toughness that we've been looking for from them, to play for 45 minutes," Barnes said. "Our guys just kept finding ways to fight back."

About that toughness: Tennessee grabbed 20 offensive rebounds against a massive Purdue interior, outrebounding Purdue by nine. And they attempted a ridiculous 21 more shots than Purdue. But there was no tougher moment than when Lamonte Turner elevated in the corner and, with 5.1 seconds left, drained a 3-pointer to send the game into overtime.

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Tennessee's guard Jordan Bone drives against Purdue's P.J. Thompson in the Vols' win in the Battle 4 Atlantis. USATSI

It was a game Tennessee would have lost a season ago. This season their newfound toughness showed, and despite being down five in the extra period, they came back from that too.

"You gotta be able to hit guys and initiate contact when you go to the basketball, and they were just quicker to the basketball than us," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "They embraced the physicality of the game more than we did."

Remember: Even though Tennessee was a disappointing 16-16 last season and missed the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row, the Vols showed up against big-time opponents. During the regular season they played every team that made last year's Final Four, and they lost all four of those games – but only by an average margin of 6.5 points. They lost an overtime game to eventual Final Four team Oregon. They went to the Chapel Hill and lost a one-possession game to the eventual national champion, North Carolina. They played one of the toughest schedules in the country, per KenPom.com. They hung tough in there against everyone, but they could rarely win close games in the end.

The November conclusion? This team is different. After a miserable first half in which he scored zero points and grabbed a single rebound, sophomore power forward Grant Williams was all over the place in the second half, grabbing seven rebounds and every loose ball and scoring 22 points. The team has serious depth – Barnes played 11 players against Purdue and has used his bench more than all but 11 teams nationally – and much more experience than last year's team that was among the youngest in the nation.  

So is it time to write Tennessee into the NCAA Tournament, into the upper echelon of the SEC, into the list of the nation's biggest surprise teams?

Calm yourself. It's only November.

But these non-conference tournaments are all about gauging where your team stands. And Tennessee seems to be on the road toward something special.

"If you can defend and you can rebound at a high level, which they can, then you're going to give yourself a chance," Painter said. "They're going to play some really good people at this tournament, and that's what you want to do. You want to play the best of the best because you want to find out about your team."

Tennessee basketball, officially back?

"These tournaments answer it for you – you're going to get your answer," Painter said. "Can they beat other teams besides us? Can they compete with those teams? You're about ready to find out."

Battle 4 Atlantis

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