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RMN postseason awards: Rick Barnes’ slow rebuild reaped rewards

The Volunteers’ head man is our SEC Coach of the Year, headlining a group individual winners who had to overcome adversity.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

At Rock M Nation, we aspire to myopically cover and track the SEC, whether it’s with preseason previews, The Watch, or game previews. With the conference tournament starting this week, we decided it was time to hand out some plaudits. We already made our selections for all-conference teams. Now it’s time to hand out some individual honors.

Rock M Nation Post Season Awards

Coach of the Year | Rick Barnes, Tennessee

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee basketball head coaching job is a good one. Kentucky is the top of the class, but the SEC’s second tier includes the Vols. In the post-Bruce Pearl lull, the program was searching for an answer — the crowds didn’t take to Cuonzo Martin, and Donnie Tyndall was a terrible hire, but then they moved on to Rick Barnes.

Barnes was at the time seen as a fairly uninspired hire despite having massive success at Texas. The Longhorns fizzled a bit down the stretch of Barnes tenure there, but in 17 seasons he made the NCAAs 16 times. People forget that!

The program in Knoxville wasn’t in the same kind of shape he inherited from Tom Penders. Tennessee was a mess. And so Barnes began the rebuild. From 103rd in KenPom his first year, to 57th last year, to 14th this year, it’s been a steady and pretty incredible climb, especially when you consider the talent disparity.

His first recruiting class was 11th in the SEC, 60th in the country. The second class was 7th and 49th, and last years class was 11th and 54th. The highest-rated player in all three classes was Jalen Johnson, the 147th rated player in the 2016 class. If ever a case were to be that scouting is important, Barnes has made it over the last three classes, where he’s assembled a tough and athletic bunch who won the SEC this year.

So zero top 100 players, and only one senior in the playing rotation on top of it. They lost their best player from a season ago, too, and got better.

I understand the case for Bruce Pearl. But Auburn has largely underachieved under him, and they have a plethora of elite talent. You can make a really, really strong case for Cuonzo Martin, but he, too, has three top 100 players in his rotation. Will Wade overachieved in his first season in Baton Rouge, but even he had a couple top-100 players. Tennessee had none.

This season from the Tennessee Volunteers has been incredible and unexpected, as evidenced by them being picked 13th in the preseason poll. I felt I was more positive on the Vols than most, and I had them only 11th. I could have imagined a scenario where they went .500 or even a game or two above if everything broke their way. But nobody expected this. And Barnes deserves credit for it.

Player of the Year | Yante Maten, Georgia

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

I said yesterday:

Maten finally got his due and respect this season despite being one of the best players in the SEC for the past three years. The only downside is his Georgia Bulldogs struggled to find their footing in a tough league and finished 7-11 and finished 11th. But it wasn’t because of Maten who was dominant all season long. Only one team all season was able to limit Maten (you guessed it, it was Missouri) as he averaged 18.9 ppg in conference play to go with 8.6 boards with a 115.3 ORtg on 28.5 %poss. Yeah, he’s really good.

If you put Maten on just about any other team, he elevates them to the top of the league. Put a consistent interior presence on Vandy or Ole Miss, suddenly you can see those teams at 11 or 12 wins instead of that many losses. Add him to Alabama with Collin Sexton, and Alabama might win the SEC. Texas A&M ... okay, well that may not work because the Aggies needed a damn guard, but you get the point.

Maten wasn’t working with Laurel and Hardy, but the Bulldogs were 13th in the SEC in offensive efficiency, even with the second-best ORB% and with Maten and his 115.3 ORtg. They are rebounding every third miss and STILL coming in under 100 ORtg as a team. 10th in 3FG%, 13th in 2FG%.

Georgia had no-one to draw the defense away from Maten, and he still put up the numbers he did. That’s just incredible.

Freshman of the Year | Collin Sexton, Alabama

Alabama v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Collin Sexton is basketball id.

His chief impulse? Attack. He’s brash, and there’s a physicality to the way he plays, even if his speed allows him to outrun contact. He doesn’t need a ball screen to get into the paint. And Sexton isn’t afraid to seek out contact finishing at the rim.

It was Avery Johnson’s job to direct that kinetic energy to power Alabama to a breakthrough season — one where the Crimson Tide straddled the top-25 line in the preseason.

Almost five months later, the consensus is Alabama may miss the NCAA tournament, with five straight losses sealing its fate. But it’s hard to lay the blame at Sexton’s feet.

The freshman’s usage rate led the conference, according to KenPom, and the lead guard posted 18.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists a night. No, his game wasn’t always the most efficient, but he was often the only consistent stream of production for the Tide. Over the course of SEC play, he was held under 10 points only twice and scored 15 points or more in 13 games.

While he was tagged as a scoring point guard, Sexton did a solid job involving teammates, with a 31.1 assist rate that led the SEC. Yet his supporting cast could be scattershot. Fellow freshman John Petty was supposed to provide spot-up shooting but only hit a pedestrian 35 percent from long range during conference play. Outside of a five-game stretch last month, Sexton’s would-be wingman averaged just 9.3 points per game. Meanwhile, veteran pieces either regressed (Dazon Ingram), were slow to return to form after injury (Braxton Key), or were lost for the season (Riley Norris), hollowing Bama’s backcourt.

And so Sexton was left with a split personality. His natural habitat is high pick-and-rolls, actions where he can routinely attack and collapse defenses. But outside of Donta Hall filling gaps for a pocket pass, his teammates became spectators on the perimeter, making it hard for Sexton to entirely ditch a scorer's mentality.

The fact Alabama didn’t live up to preseason expectations isn’t an outcome you can pin on Sexton. The fact Alabama was only slightly better on offense, finishing 12th in adjusted efficiency for SEC action, than it was a year ago speaks to more structural flaws. Johnson inserted a likely lottery pick who lived up to the billing, and the Tide remain in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament. Extract Sexton and the program likely isn’t anywhere near the bubble.

Defensive Player of the Year | Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kentucky

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks the part of an elite wing defender at 6-foot-6, a wingspan just shy of 7 feet, massive hands and a lithe frame to add smart bulk. And he’s not stiff, flowing easily side to side and navigating switches with ease. And if he so chooses, he can apply a steady dose of pressure.

Over the course of his freshman season, his ad hoc move to point guard piqued interest, but Gilgeous-Alexander settled in quickly as a defender with the flexibility to guard all three backcourt positions. On the whole, Kentucky was middle of the pack defensively — they ranked sixth in adjusted efficiency during SEC play, per KenPom — and carried a reputation for inconsistency. At times, coach John Calipari tinkered with a zone.

To a degree, Gilgeous-Alexander was tainted by association. But when you watch him, you see quick feet and constant effort. Steals get the pub, but Gilgeous-Alexander was able to generate deflections that led to a steal by a teammate, igniting transition opportunities for an offense prone to long periods of stagnation.

What sets Gilgeous-Alexander apart, though, is his multiplicity. You can plug him into any role against any type of wing and he’ll do a bang-up job. Take a look.

Swiss Army Shea

Category Rank % Time Poss / Game Points PPP FGm FGM FGA FG% aFG% %TO %FT %SF %Score
Category Rank % Time Poss / Game Points PPP FGm FGM FGA FG% aFG% %TO %FT %SF %Score
P&R Ball Handlers 17 39.30% 4.2 2.5 0.594 2.1 1 3.1 31.30% 36.40% 22.60% 3.80% 2.30% 26.30%
Isolation 51 10.40% 1.1 0.8 0.743 0.6 0.4 1 41.90% 41.90% 11.40% 0% 0% 37.10%
Spot-Ups 16 30.80% 3.3 2.3 0.692 2 0.8 2.8 29.20% 38.20% 10.60% 5.80% 4.80% 26.90%
Off-Screens 31 8% 0.8 0.7 0.852 0.4 0.3 0.7 38.10% 45.20% 14.80% 7.40% 3.70% 37%
Handoffs 27 5.30% 0.6 0.5 0.889 0.3 0.1 0.4 28.60% 35.70% 5.60% 16.70% 16.70% 38.90%
Overall 19 100% 10.6 7.4 0.704 5.6 2.8 8.4 33.30% 39.80% 16% 5% 3.80% 30.20%

Every season is a race toward competence for Calipari, trying to turn elite prospects into a cohesive unit with defined duties they can execute consistently. That’s been a trying exercise at times this season, but however quietly he’s gone about it, Gilgeous-Alexander turned his potential into a nettlesome reality for opponents.