Sidelines with John Clay

Is Rick Barnes leaving Tennessee to rebuild UCLA basketball?

Update: WBIR in Knoxville is reporting that Tennessee has made a counter-offer and Barnes may make a decision on Monday.

From out of the blue on Sunday night came Evan Daniels’ report that Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes has emerged as a serious contender for the head coaching job at UCLA.

That was followed by a tweet from Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times saying, “I have been told that Rick Barnes would definitely accept the UCLA job if formally offered.”

Would the 64-year-old Barnes really leave Rocky Top for Westwood?

In just four seasons, Barnes has transformed Tennessee into an SEC power that sat atop the AP College Basketball Top 25 for four weeks this season. The Vols tied with Auburn for the regular-season title last season before losing to Kentucky in the finals of the SEC Tournament, then to Loyola of Chicago in the NCAA Tournament’s second round.

This year, Tennessee tied with Kentucky for second place in the SEC, lost to Auburn in the finals of the league tournament, then lost in overtime to Purdue in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. The Vols finished 31-6. Barnes was named the Naismith National Coach of the Year.

Barnes is 88-50 overall and 42-30 in the SEC at Tennessee. He was previously head coach at George Mason, Providence, Clemson and Texas, so the Hickory, North Carolina, native is not afraid of moving around. He lead Texas to the Final Four in 2003.

He is facing a rebuilding job in Knoxville. Starters Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander are graduating. Point guard Jordan Bone has announced his intention to enter the NBA Draft. Two-time SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams is expected to follow suit. Barnes’ incoming freshman class includes five-star prospect Josiah-Jordan James, a 6-foot-6 forward from Charleston, S.C., ranked No. 14 by 247Sports.

Barnes also returned the Kentucky-Tennessee rivalry to a rivalry. Matched up against his good friend John Calipari, Barnes and his Vols went 4-2 against the Cats over the past two seasons. Last year, Tennessee swept the regular-season series before losing to UK in the conference tournament. The two teams split their regular-season games this season, before the Vols beat UK 82-78 in a terrific SEC Tournament semifinal.

Meanwhile, UCLA has been the subject of sharp criticism for its search since the Bruins fired head coach Steve Alford in mid-season. After reportedly pursuing UK’s John Calipari, school officials believed they had an agreement with TCU Coach Jamie Dixon. That fell apart when Dixon could not re-negotiate his $8 million buyout with the school.

On the one hand, UCLA leads all of college basketball in national championships with 11. On the other hand, 10 of those came under the legendary coach John Wooden. (Jim Harrick won the 11th.) The Bruins have been hurting for attendance in a city where there are a million other things to do. Even with the Pac-12 going through a down cycle, UCLA hasn’t been able to engineer a return to its glory days. Alford was 124-63 at the time of his firing. He was never able to get the Bruins past the NCAA’s Sweet 16.

As for Barnes, perhaps he believes he has taken Tennessee as far as he can. Perhaps he is intrigued by the challenge of re-booting the Bruins. Perhaps UCLA is offering more money than Tennessee is willing to pay. Or after 17 years at Texas before being fired, he doesn’t want to spend too long at another place.

So just when it looked like the SEC had filled all its openings — Eric Musselman at Arkansas; Nate Oats at Alabama; Buzz Williams at Texas A&M and Jerry Stackhouse at Vanderbilt — the league may have another one, and a big one, to fill.

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