This week marked the third time this season in which Tennessee basketball didn’t have a midweek game.
If it were up to Rick Barnes, the coaching staff, and the players, the Vols would be playing games instead of practicing. That’s why the return of SEC play is a welcome sight.
Tennessee will now be playing two conference games per week for the remainder of the season, which allows everyone within the program to get into a routine.
“Once school gets started next week, it’ll pretty much be the same routine from here on out,” Barnes said during his press conference on Wednesday. “I think we’re all ready for that, to be honest with you.”
Despite the three weeks off from midweek games, the Vols have been able to take full advantage of them. During those weeks, Tennessee has had mini training camps, and according to Barnes, his team has taken full advantage of the two days where they really got after it. Going forward, discipline becomes a big factor both on and off the court.
“Now it’s all about prep work and maintaining your condition throughout the year and not letting that slip away,” Barnes said. “You want to have fresh legs when you get ready, and you want to be fresh mentally for games. So, it’s really important when they get more time that they don’t use it the wrong way.”
The prep work Barnes mentions begins with Georgia (8-4), Tennessee’s first SEC opponent of the season.
Here’s what the Vols’ fourth-year head coach had to say about Georgia amongst other things on Wednesday afternoon in the Ray and Lucy Hand digital studio.
Tom Crean’s Georgia Bulldogs
No. 3 Tennessee (11-1) owns its best winning percentage entering SEC play since a 12-1 start to the 2007-08 season. But when conference play begins, records go out the window.
“I don’t care what league you are in; it’s tough,” Barnes stated. “Once you get into conference play, everyone knows each other, and coaches have coached against each other for the most part.”
One coach that isn’t as familiar with the league is Georgia’s first-year head coach, Tom Crean, who was hired after going 166-135 in nine seasons at Indiana. Crean has brought a palpable buzz to Athens, as Georgia sold out three games before the season started. After a crowd of 9,018 were on hand to watch Georgia beat Savannah State in the opener – the largest for a home opener since Dominque Wilkins’ sophomore season – the number of sellouts has risen to six.
On the court, Georgia has won five of its last six games, including a 70-59 road win over Georgia Tech. Nicolas Claxton – Georgia’s best player – is the reigning SEC Player of the Week. Claxton has six double-doubles on the year and ranks eighth nationally in blocks (3.1 bpg) and 15th in rebounding (10.2 rpg). Rayshaun Hammonds leads the team in scoring at 15.0 points per game while Tyree Crump is averaging 11.2 points off the bench.
“What I like about them (Georgia) is that you’ve been able to watch them get better and progress under what he wants them to do,” Barnes said of Crean’s Bulldogs. “Defensively, they’re very long and have great length and size inside.”
Georgia’s size is what has allowed them to get off to such a great start and nearly beat the likes of a top-25 team in Arizona State. The Bulldogs rank second in the SEC in defensive rebounds per game (32.0), fourth in blocks per game (6.3), and seventh in rebounds per game (43.2). In field goal percentage defense, Georgia trails only Tennessee in the SEC, holding opponents to 38 percent shooting from the field.
“I think like any first-year coach in a program, not only is he (Crean) trying to get what he wants to get done, but he’s also trying to move pieces and parts around to make it fit,” Barnes added. “I think what he’s done is gone in and evaluated what he’s seen, and he’s trying to put it together in terms of how he wants it not just for this year, but moving forward.”
With former Vol Dane Bradshaw on the call, Tennessee and Georgia are set to tip-off Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network. The Vols lead the all-time series 94-61, dating back to 1913.
Still No Lamonte Turner
The most remarkable part about Tennessee’s 11-1 start to the season is that they’ve done it without the services of the reigning Co-SEC Sixth Man of the Year – Lamonte Turner.
Last season, Turner led the SEC in free throw shooting (.940) and 3-point shooting (.452) in conference play. This year, Turner has played in just three games and has shot 26 percent from the field due to a nagging shoulder injury. He last played against Eastern Kentucky on Nov. 28, and Barnes doesn’t expect him to return to the court on Saturday against Georgia.
“He hasn’t practiced,” Barnes said of Turner. “He did a little bit (Tuesday), but not much. He’s gonna have to get himself back out there and practice before he’ll be able to really get involved in games.”
The whole situation is beginning to feel really weird, but Barnes maintains that he trusts Turner to tell him when he’s ready to play – one of the criteria he’s maintained for Turner to get back on the court, the other being that he doesn’t want Turner to play until he’s back to being himself completely.
“I know he’s competitive,” Barnes said after the Vols’ win over Tennessee Tech last Saturday. “He wants to play. He keeps telling me he feels close, like he can go.”
Minutes Going Up
Tennessee essentially has six starters – seven if Turner were healthy – as Bowden plays more minutes than the guy who starts in front of him, Yves Pons. With Turner on the shelf, all of the Vols’ key players are playing big minutes each game in his absence.
“Would I like for the minutes to be down? Yeah,” Barnes stated. “Lamonte Turner playing would make those go down across the board a little bit, but it’s just the way it’s worked out.”
Admiral Schofield (32.3), Jordan Bone (31.8), and Grant Williams (31.2) are all averaging well over 30 minutes per game, while Jordan Bowden (27.6) and Kyle Alexander (26.6) are near the 30-minute mark. Aside from the main five, Yves Pons (18.8) and John Fulkerson (14.2) are the only other two players averaging double-digit minutes.
“Some of it has to do with the level of competition we have played against early on, where they have had to play a lot of minutes in those early-season games,” Barnes explained. “In the end, you hope it all works out.”
Vol Nation Showing Out
Before Barnes’ press conference, Tennessee basketball SID Tom Satkowiak announced that Tennessee has sold out five of its 10 remaining home games. The only games that aren’t sold out are the Arkansas, Missouri, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State games. According to Satkowiak, even those games are very close to being sold out.
“I am so appreciative of our fans with what they have done and how they have come out to watch these guys,” Barnes said. “I think they have enjoyed watching the team grow up and watched us change physically.
“I don’t know if I have been around a better fanbase ever. I really don’t. In terms of basketball, it’s amazing to me.”
With an average attendance of 16,976, Tennessee ranks sixth nationally currently. In five of Tennessee’s eight home games this season, there have been at least 16,000 fans in attendance. Against Tennessee Tech last Saturday, 21,165 were in attendance – the largest of the season to this point.
Because Barnes grew up on the other side of the Smoky Mountains in Hickory, North Carolina, he knew all about Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King and the tradition of Tennessee basketball. As head coach of the Vols, the passion of the fanbase has been more than he ever imagined.
“Basketball in this state is bigger than I had ever imagined,” Barnes said. “But being here, I have gotten to meet a lot of different coaches at other universities and see the jobs they do. I look around and see the players in this state. It’s good.
“All I can say is that, since I have been here, the fans have been unbelievable.”