Rick Barnes took time to point it out during the Big Orange Caravan stop in Chattanooga in early May. His Tennessee basketball team spent more time ranked last season than any other Southeastern Conference team.

The Vols entered the Associated Press Top 25 during Week 5 last season — ranked for the first time since Dec. 20, 2011  debuting as the No. 24 team in the Dec. 4 edition of the poll after winning six of their first seven games.

Tennessee would stay ranked for the final 15 weeks, finishing at No. 13 in the final AP poll on March 12, after winning a share of the SEC regular-season title and making a run to the SEC Tournament title game against Kentucky.

So when it comes to playing with expectations, these Vols aren’t walking on unfamiliar land.

“I think it provides a reference point,” associate head coach Rob Lanier said last week.

The specific reference goes back to Christmas, when Tennessee was No. 19 in the poll with a 9-2 record, the only two losses coming against No. 1 Villanova and No. 13 North Carolina.

But an awakening came with the start of SEC play — an overtime loss at Arkansas after giving up a late lead, then a 14-point first-half lead given up in a home loss to Auburn, while the Tigers rung up 94 points.

“We started league play and we went 0-2 with Kentucky coming in,” Lanier said. “And I do think they were feeling (that pressure) at that time. Auburn came in here and whooped us.

“We talked about it. Everyone was telling these guys how good they are. Bunch of adulation and praise coming our way. And we didn’t handle it well.”

Kentucky came to Thompson-Boling Arena and handled the Vols in the first half, taking a 37-29 lead into halftime. Tennessee rallied in the second half, outscoring the Wildcats 47-28 while rolling to a 76-65 win.

“We sort of fought our way out of it,” Lanier said, “and got back on track.”

Beginning with the home win over Kentucky — the third time in three seasons the Vols had taken down their rival in Knoxville — Tennessee would go 13-3 over their remaining 16 SEC games, splitting the regular-season title with Auburn.

“It was a little bit of experience there,” Lanier said.

After falling to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament title game, Tennessee went to the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed, losing to No. 11 Loyola-Chicago during the Ramblers’ Cinderella run to the Final Four.

Now, with 11 of 13 scholarship players returning for the 2018-19 season, the baseline expectation will be so much more for the Vols. Simply being ranked will be expected. Tennessee is already a top-ten pick in most offseason power rankings, if not top five.

The Vols can lean on the experience of playing with expectations last season — being ranked and staying ranked than any of their SEC opponents — but that doesn’t mean they’re not starting over.

“We’ll have that going for us going into the year,” Lanier said, “but as you know, you don’t get any credit for last year. You have to start over. This is a brand new journey, a brand new team, even though we have the same players.

“It’s a new team and every game is going to be a challenge. It’s something we’re going to have to experience, but I do think we’ll be prepared.”