Everything to Prove: With Grant Williams Leading, Tennessee Basketball Is Gunning for Glory
This story appears in the Dec. 31, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
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You might call Grant Williams an overachiever.
As a sophomore last season, the 6' 7" forward was voted the SEC Player of the Year, less than three seasons after being a roly-poly (his words) three-star recruit from Charlotte. He chose Tennessee over Yale, Harvard and Princeton, to the disappointment of his NASA-engineer mother, Teresa Johnson, after building a future Ivy Leaguer’s extracurricular résumé: studying a half-dozen instruments, including the violin and clarinet; tap-dancing a solo in Providence Day School’s production of Anything Goes; attending STEM programs and chess tournaments, once beating the nation’s top-ranked youth in the latter. At Tennessee he was initially a mechanical engineering major, then decided it was more important to graduate in three years and begin work on a masters. A minor in Spanish was dropped for similar reasons, despite his fluency. In May he will receive his degree in supply chain management. He took 18 credits this fall to make that happen. In the spring he’ll take 17 more.
His coach, Rick Barnes, appreciates his star’s many talents. He lauds Williams’s worldliness and depth. He praises his unselfishness as a player and his commitment to hosting recruits and attending all kinds of campus sporting events. But overachiever? Barnes has publicly called Williams “Tennessee’s letdown” and said that he is “the definition of soft.” The barbs are intended not to diminish Williams’s basketball accomplishments but to inspire even more of them, a tough-love act Barnes has honed over decades. “He’s not even scratched the surface,” Barnes says of Williams. “When I see greatness in somebody, I wanna get it.”
Of the 31 teams Barnes has coached and the 109 who have played for Tennessee, these Volunteers have a chance to be the greatest yet. They are 9–1, with their lone loss coming against now No. 1 Kansas in overtime, after which they beat then No. 1 Gonzaga. Ranked third by the AP, they are driven largely by the hard-nosed Williams (20.1 points. 8.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists) and the tenacious clamp-down D of 6' 6" senior wing Admiral Schofield (18.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 43.5% three-point shooting). According to kenpom.com, Tennessee’s all-upperclassman lineup makes it the nation’s seventh-most experienced power-conference squad. It plays accordingly, with a controlled, steady pace on offense while limiting mistakes (the SEC’s lowest turnover rate, at 16.2) and sharing the ball (assisting on 68.5% of field goals, the second-highest rate nationally), and with an unrelentingly physical defense powered by the urgency and focus of a group that can sense its time is now.
Like Williams, Schofield was a less-heralded recruit who has blossomed into a premier player in one of the premier conferences. Such a parallel is an appropriately common denominator for a team that, a year after being pegged to finish 13th in the SEC and then tying for first, now has real hopes of reaching the program’s first Final Four. “We’re a bunch of two- and three-star guys,” says Schofield, “trying to make a name for ourselves.”
The primary reason recruiting analysts shortchanged Williams was structural. He entered college weighing 260 pounds with 17% body fat, and at his high school height of 6' 4" there were concerns that his old-school post game—honed by his father, Gil, who played at Division II Mankato (Minn.) State, and friends of Gil’s, including Hall of Famers Moses Malone and Tiny Archibald—would not translate against larger, elite competition. (Grant sought to counteract this by telling people he was 6' 8". “I felt like I was,” Williams says.) What little high-major interest he got came from playing with Duke-bound Harry Giles III. “If he wasn’t on our team, I wouldn’t have noticed,” says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who coached Williams one summer in AAU. “He doesn’t fit the suit.”
Barnes had coached another tweener from North Carolina who generated only modest recruiting buzz because of his conditioning. At Texas, PJ Tucker developed into the 2006 Big 12 Player of the Year and is now in his eighth NBA season. The first time Barnes saw Williams play at an AAU showcase, the coach recalls Williams made a “Barkley-like spin move” from the short corner and skied for a dunk. “That convinced me that there was an athlete inside that body,” Barnes says.
Unleashing it required Williams to spend much of his freshman year in what he calls “fat camp,” a series of additional cardio workouts before and after practice that helped him get his body fat below 10%. He is now around 235 pounds, though still not safe from Barnes’s ego-checking. After Williams won the SEC’s top individual honor last spring, Barnes told him that based on the team’s play down the stretch, the award could have easily gone to Schofield; when Williams was selected as the league’s preseason player of the year this fall, the coach pointed out that no preseason pick has ever won the year-end trophy.
Asked to evaluate his star’s play on a mid-December afternoon, Barnes lifts a stat sheet from the table beside him. Williams’s shooting percentage, then at 57.4, should be over 60, according to Barnes. The coach notes his 80.4% free throw shooting is too low as well. And his 9.3 rebounds per game, up from 6.0 last season? “He should be averaging 12,” Barnes says.
“The best thing you can do for people is tell ’em the truth,” Barnes adds. He’s a coach who knows the value of hearing what you might not want to.
The common narrative goes like this: Over 17 seasons in Austin—which included 16 NCAA tournament appearances, two Elite Eights and a berth in the 2003 Final Four—Barnes’s teams underachieved, as evidenced by six straight early March exits. After he was forced out in 2015, Knoxville offered a refreshing change of scenery and, voilà, the coach was reinvigorated, hence the Vols’ success. But to hear Barnes tell it, his most vital change came long before he left the Longhorns.
Barnes had risen quickly as a coach. After one season at George Mason, at 34, he was hired at Providence in 1988, when coaching legends such as Lou Carnesecca, Rollie Massimino and John Thompson ruled the Big East. He compensated with maniacal preparation (reviewing every play of every game for every opponent) and relentless practices (no out-of-bounds, late-night sessions on the eve of day games). “Rick always had us in David-versus-Goliath mode,” says Fran Fraschilla, a Providence assistant from 1989–90 to ’91–92. It worked. The Friars reached three NCAA tournaments in six seasons and won a Big East tournament title before Barnes decamped for Clemson, another minnow in a power-conference pond. In three years the hard-driving Barnes took the Tigers to the program’s first No. 2 ranking.
Texas, too, reached new heights under Barnes. Before his arrival it had long been a football-school afterthought; the Final Four in 2003 was the Longhorns’ first since 1947, and a No. 1 ranking in 2009–10 was their first. Barnes lured future pros such as Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge and T.J. Ford to Austin and coached them as doggedly—and vulgarly—as his 13th man. He scouted at ungodly hours, took game prep home with him. Guilt enveloped him whenever he wasn’t recruiting. He took players’ failures personally. “Losses back then,” recalls UT-Arlington coach and former Longhorns assistant Chris Ogden, “you ran the other way if you saw him coming down the hall.”
It was a level of obsession Barnes now describes as “consumed.” A lifelong Baptist, he began blowing off church for solo bike rides, promising his family he would spend the time reflecting on his faith but instead letting his mind drift back to basketball. He coveted not just wins but also the fame and fortune that came with them. “I mistook activity for achievement,” he says. “I was chasing all the wrong things. Most people probably thought I was a pretty good guy, but there was an inner arrogance.”
The wake-up call came from his daughter, Carley, about a decade ago, at a time when the Longhorns were regulars in the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. She told him that she, her mother, Candy, and her brother—Nick, a missionary in the Middle East—hoped to spend the afterlife together as a family, in heaven. But she wasn’t sure her father was on the path to join them.
Barnes was floored. Soon he was also grateful. He recalled a sermon he once heard from a minister named Ben Haden. “He said you can’t live like hell and expect to go to heaven,” Barnes says. “I was living like hell.”
He remained demanding of his players but stopped cursing at them as a means to improve their play. He reached out to former pupils to make amends. He became a fixture at Austin Stone Community Church. As the number of signature wins declined—the Longhorns did not get past the first weekend of March Madness after 2008—and criticism swirled in media and fan circles, Barnes kept his keel even. “There was nothing about his behavior that made you think, ‘Oh, he’s not enjoying this,’ ” says Tennessee assistant Rob Lanier, who also spent seven seasons on Barnes’s staff at Texas.
When the end of his time in Austin came, Barnes’s ego was not crushed as it once might have been. Then–athletic director Steve Patterson, on the job less than two years, gave Barnes an ultimatum: He could keep his job only if he fired his staff. Barnes chose to leave. And he had other options; by the time he ascended the podium at his farewell press conference in March 2015, Barnes had a plane waiting to take him to Tennessee. A reporter asked Barnes if he thought he would coach again. He still smirks thinking about his answer: “Sooner than you think.”
He is asked now, less than four years later as Tennessee sits near the top of the AP poll, whether his success is at all enabled by it no longer defining him. “I’m not about success,” Barnes says. “It has nothing to do with success.” But that’s not to say he’s devoid of ambition. “You think about Kentucky and Carolina and how they’ve been there every year,” he says. “Where we are right now, if we don’t wanna be a part of that, we shouldn’t be doing this.”
When Schofield was choosing between offers from Tennessee and West Virginia, Kentucky offered inspiration: He was miffed that the blue blood never came calling. Going to Knoxville would offer the opportunity to play and beat the Wildcats—which the Vols have, four times in seven meetings during Schofield’s three-plus seasons. When Tennessee first knocked off Kentucky in Schofield’s freshman season, he says, “That was the biggest game we won all season. But I wanted more than that.”
As conference play begins Saturday, it’s the Volunteers who are looking like the SEC’s measuring stick, a status more in line with their collective self-image than their ratings as recruits. “With a coach that’s a realist himself, that’s real with us day in and day out, we have a good self-perception of who we are,” says Schofield. Their mentality, he says, is that “it’s not like we’re stepping on the court with you. You’re stepping on the court with us.”
“This is a throwback Rick Barnes team,” says Fraschilla, now an ESPN analyst, “to the days he was climbing and fighting his way up.” Some of that old combativeness could be seen in the barbs Barnes traded with Memphis coach Penny Hardaway after the Vols beat the Tigers 102–92.
Williams told Barnes upon his commitment to Tennessee that he wanted “to hang banners,” a process that began last season with the Volunteers’ first regular-season conference title in a decade and just their third since 1982. The goal now is larger and more enduring. “We want to be one of those programs where every single year it’s like, Oh, Tennessee, Tennessee,” says Williams. “Not just, Oh, they had a good team, they had a good run.” In other words, they want not just to win, but also to keep winning—and have no one call them overachievers again.