Weekend lookahead: Tough stretch will reveal if Vols are for real

January standouts in the SEC (4:33)

SEC Now's Antoine Walker and Jimmy Dykes hand out their awards for the month of January for teams around the conference. (4:33)

If Tennessee players want to find coach Rick Barnes during the season, there's a good chance he'll be sitting at a folding table at midcourt in the Volunteers' practice facility.

Barnes has a nice office with a desk and chair, but he prefers to be where his players can find him. Barnes said he started using a folding table when he coached at Texas because his office was so far from his team's practice facility.

“When the guys come in, they're going to have to go through the practice facility,” Barnes said. “I just like being there with them. I don't particularly care about being in an office. I feel like I get a lot more done there than I would with them sitting across from me at a desk.”

If Tennessee fans had any concerns about Barnes, 63, coasting into retirement after he accepted the job three years ago, he has alleviated them this season. After rebuilding a depleted roster the past two seasons, the No. 18 Volunteers seem poised to return to the NCAA tournament in his third year.

And that's welcome news for a Tennessee fan base that desperately needed something to cheer.

Heading into Saturday's home game against Ole Miss (6 p.m. ET, SEC Network), the Volunteers (16-5, 6-3) have won seven of their past eight games to climb into a second-place tie behind No. 11 Auburn in the SEC standings.

Saturday's game is the start of one of the Vols' most difficult stretches of the season, with three games in a week. After hosting the Rebels, Tennessee plays back-to-back road games at No. 21 Kentucky on Tuesday night and at Alabama on Feb. 10.

That's one of the reasons why Barnes criticized his team for its sloppy start in the second half of an 84-61 victory over LSU on Wednesday night. The Vols need to be more focused going into that three-game stretch.

“You can't think you're going to turn off the engine and start it back up at different parts of the game,” Barnes said. “It's mental. I think our guys are starting to understand what it takes to be better than just a good team in this league.”

Tennessee fans weren't sure what to expect when Barnes was hired in March 2015, only two days after he had been fired as Texas' coach. Barnes had guided the Longhorns to 16 NCAA tournament appearances in 17 seasons, including a Final Four in 2003 and the Elite Eight in 2006 and 2008. But then his teams failed to survive the opening weekend of the NCAAs in six of his last seven seasons (along with a CBI appearance in 2013).

“Guys said I'd gotten complacent, but I don't ever think that was true,” Barnes said.

Former Texas athletics director Steve Patterson told Barnes he could have remained coach if he had fired some of his assistants, but Barnes refused to do it.

His loyalty to assistants got him in hot water at Tennessee recently. He unknowingly committed an NCAA Level III violation by taking money out of his pocket to supplement assistant Desmond Oliver's salary. Barnes said he wanted Oliver's salary to be equal to his other assistants, and he didn't know he was committing a violation.

“There's no doubt my dream would have been to finish my career at Texas,” Barnes said. “But God had a different plan than what I had. I saw the way [former Texas athletics director] DeLoss Dodds was treated, and I saw the way [former Longhorns football coach] Mack Brown was treated. The writing was on the wall.”

After Barnes' teams went a combined 31-35 in his first two seasons at Tennessee, the Volunteers might just be getting started. The Vols expect to lose only one player -- backup point guard James Daniel III, a graduate transfer from Howard -- and four of their top five scorers are sophomores.

While Barnes and his staff have yet to sign a five-star prospect like T.J. Ford or Kevin Durant, they've rebuilt the roster with players they're developing. Forward Grant Williams, the team's highest-rated signee in 2015, has emerged as an All-SEC candidate, averaging 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds.

“I came here with the same plan,” Barnes said. “Everybody thinks we have a different blueprint here, but we really don't. We're still trying to recruit the best players. What we're looking for now is to add the next level of players.”

Here are other teams worth watching:

Big Ten's best hope?

The Big Ten basketball standings look a lot like the football ones the past few seasons. The league is extremely top heavy, with two or three really good teams at the top, followed by a bunch of mediocre teams or worse. Oh, and Illinois and Rutgers are occupying the cellar.

ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi currently projects four Big Ten teams to make the NCAA tournament field: Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan. Barring a late collapse by the Wolverines, each of those teams seems pretty safe.

At least half of the Big Ten's 14 teams were included in every NCAA tournament since 2011, but the league isn't going to get anywhere close to that this season. An even bigger surprise: Nebraska might have the best chance at being the fifth Big Ten team to make it, barring a big upset at the league tourney at Madison Square Garden.

The Cornhuskers (17-8, 8-4 Big Ten) have won five of their past six games to climb into fourth place (a half-game ahead of Michigan) in the Big Ten standings. They're getting a week off before playing at Minnesota on Tuesday night. Nebraska has one victory over an RPI top-50 opponent -- 72-52 over Michigan on Jan. 18 -- and it doesn't play another top-50 for the rest of the way. There's no margin for error.

Maryland (15-9, 4-7 Big Ten) has been undone by injuries -- center Michal Cekovsky became the latest frontcourt player to go down, with a left heel injury -- and is struggling to stay afloat, losing five of its past six games. The Terps host struggling Wisconsin on Sunday.

Texas Tech at TCU

Chris Beard, a former Bob Knight assistant at Texas Tech, hasn't needed long to turn the Red Raiders into a Big 12 title contender. In Beard's second season, the No. 10 Red Raiders (18-4, 6-3 Big 12) trail Kansas by only one game in the league standings. And Tech already has defeated the Jayhawks on the road, winning 85-73 on Jan. 2 in its first-ever victory at Allen Fieldhouse.

Texas Tech senior Keenan Evans had a career-high 38 points -- on just 13 field goal attempts -- in a 73-71 win in overtime against Texas on Wednesday night, including the winner at the buzzer in OT. He had 31 points in a 70-63 win at South Carolina in the Big 12/SEC Challenge last week. He is the first Red Raider to score 30 points in back-to-back games since Andre Emmett in 2002.

The Red Raiders trailed the Longhorns by five points late in regulation but came back to preserve their 14-0 home record.

“Things were pretty bleak there, and I didn't see anybody leave,” Beard said. “No reason to leave. Whataburger's open 24 hours.”

The Red Raiders play at TCU on Saturday (2 p.m. ET/ESPNU); they've lost their past three road games in Big 12 play since winning at Kansas.

Alabama at Florida

Talk about a post-Big 12/SEC Challenge flop. Alabama knocked off Oklahoma and Trae Young 80-73 last weekend, then fell 69-60 to Missouri at home on Wednesday night. The Gators routed Baylor 80-61, then lost 72-60 at Georgia on Tuesday night.

After their midweek losses, coaches of both teams were questioning their toughness. Georgia outrebounded Florida 44-35 and had 15 offensive boards. Alabama was outrebounded 37-27 by the Tigers, who had lost three in a row.

If Alabama (14-8, 5-4 SEC) is going to stay off the bubble, it needs to find freshman Collin Sexton some help. Freshman John Petty is averaging only 6.5 points in the past four games, shooting 8-for-29 from the field.

The Tide has some great wins over Auburn, Rhode Island, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, but their bad losses are also starting to pile up. A victory at Florida (15-7, 6-3 SEC) on Saturday (4 p.m. ET/ESPN) would be a step in the right direction.