Everything Rick Barnes and Bruce Pearl Said about Vols vs. Tigers

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    (Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

    Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes and Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl spoke to the media this week about this Saturday’s game between the No. 5 Vols and the Tigers. Here’s everything the coaches had to say prior to the game.

    Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes:

    On what is at stake for Auburn on Saturday:

    “I still think there’s a lot this week and next week that teams are playing for. There’s still a lot left on the line for college basketball teams, certainly in certain situations. When you look at (Auburn), they shoot a lot of threes in about any way they can do it – early in transition, running a lot of sets where they are looking to shoot the three. They are shooting it at a very high clip. They turn people over and rebound it. I think they are in the Top 30 in the country in rebounding. They play fast. They will play some defense where they will get into the backcourt and press you some. They do a lot of different things. Obviously, it’s a big game, but I think this time of year all games are big for everybody because you are trying to get your momentum and trying to get where you’re consistent in playing at a high level.”

    On Auburn forward Chuma Okeke:

    “He is playing really, really well. People might look at their team and think they are a little bit undersized, but between he and McLemore, those guys go get it. They play much bigger than they are. They are quick to the ball as a team. They are very quick. At times, they put five guys out there. I think he’s one of the big reasons they are where they are right now. He has really improved. You go back to where he started to where he is now, he is just continuing to get better.”

    On if the defensive improvement is a product of the team being more mature:

    “I think it is. I think the fact that they know we had got away from (it). There was a little bit of slippage here and a little bit there. It’s something that they know we have to do it to be where we want to be. Certainly this time of year. But also mention that our offense can help our defense get even better right now where we want to take good shots. When we are up, we don’t want guys to be hesitant to shoot the ball. It hurt our defense earlier before these last two weeks, where we were totally relying on offense and thinking we were going to outscore people. We have gotten back to where we have been really good. I thought we were really good after looking at the tape against Mississippi State. I thought we were really good defensively.”

    On Admiral Schofield’s improved play on the defensive end:

    “I’ve said it all along, when guys get locked in to the defensive side of it, and if they’re good offensive players, that part of it is just going to work for them. When you go into games putting pressure on yourself on the offensive end, it’s difficult. It really is. When he’s really locked in, he can defend. He’s improved so much when you think about really the last two years, being able to get on the perimeter more. When he’s locked in, he can guard and he can guard every spot on the floor.”

    On Jordan Bone’s incredible bounce pass against Mississippi State on Tuesday:

    “Well, Bone likes to do that. He’s good unless he tries to get too cute. When he tries to get too cute with the ball, he gets sloppy with it. But he sees the floor. And we tell guys all the time, if they will run, he will get them the ball. And when the teams get back in transition, we want him now putting the pressure on the other team. Back, oh, halfway through the season, we were really, really running and teams made a conscious effort to take away that early thrust. When that’s taken away, that’s when he has to become the guy. He loves pushing the ball, catching it right away, looking, throwing it out front. Or hitting the pipe man running. But he can see the floor. And he does love passing the ball, he really does.”

    On what the coaching staff has told Jalen Johnson:

    “What we’ve told him, he can do that, we just want him to take shots within the offense. We didn’t want him to go out there and do what Lucas (Campbell) did, trying to create shots. We don’t want that, but sometimes guys do that, guys that you are really counting on to come in and play. We expect guys like Jalen to play within the offense, and time and score dictate a lot, but if he’s in the game and in the flow of the offense, we expect him to shoot it.”

    On if the improved defensive play was a result of Tennessee realizing the way it was performing wasn’t going to win them a title:

    “It was big, and again, we had talked about it for two, two-and-a-half weeks leading up to it — and we keep stats the way we grade out our film — and we weren’t meeting any of our goals the way we needed to. We kept telling them that we needed to get this rebounding number where it needs to be, sacks back where they need to be, field-goal percentage, all that, but we were winning. As much as you talk about it, harp on it and try to practice it, it’s a mindset. This whole thing is a mindset, and after the Kentucky game I think they got knocked back down to where they said we have to do this or else. Since then, we’ve been building pretty well.”

    On what it would mean to win back-to-back SEC Championships:

    “It would be great, but we’ve got to go out and do it. It’s not gonna be easy. I mean, last year this time we were playing at home, and now we’re going into a Senior Night where the team just came off a huge win against their archrival, and so we know that. But we’ve been in this now all year where we know what we’re going into. It’s an early game, and I expect our guys to be ready. And they know if they want to have a chance to be a part of a championship team again, it’s right there for them. But they’re gonna have to go in there and play really well.”

    Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl

    On Tennessee during his opening statement:

    “They have lost three games and all three losses have been away from Thompson-Boling Arena against Top 15 teams. They’ve lost to Kansas, Kentucky, and LSU and beaten everybody else. They’re really good. It’s going to have to be played out as to who the best team in the league is, whether it’s LSU or Kentucky or Tennessee. I think those are clearly the top three teams. We’ve been talking about it all year long. I’d say probably the toughest match-up for us of the top three teams because of the way they defend, because of their physicality, because of the match-ups. And they’ve got some great players. Grant Williams is a national player of the year semifinalist. Admiral Schofieldis a finalist for the Julius Ervin Award. Jordan Bone, I keep calling him Josh because the story behind the story is his older brother Josh walked on for me at Tennessee and became a scholarship player his last year, or his last year or two. And his brother was obviously a really good player. He’s a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, point guard.

    “Chuma Okeke’s going to have to match up against another national player of the year nominee. Last time he did it was P.J. Washington, and this time it’s Grant Williams. And then Schofield’s probably playing as well as anybody.”

    On if it’s weird playing Tennessee for the first time in over a year:

    “How about this one? We’ve played Alabama five times since the time we played Tennessee last. Because we played — you know, that’s the way it works because we played them last year at the beginning of the year. So, it’s a brand-new scout. But it’s a brand-new scout and two veteran coaches. Rick Barnes is going to do what he does, and he does it really well, and I’m going to do what I do, and I don’t do it that well. When Rick sits down and looks at us, he’s going to see what he’s seen for the last however many times we’ve matched up. We’ve gone against each other a bunch of times. And I’m the same way. Great respect for coach Barnes as a man, as a coach, as a role model in our profession, so from that standpoint it’s not like it’s a new scout or a new preparation.”

    On if Auburn forward Chuma Okeke will move around against Tennessee:

    “Well you know, when you’re playing against Tennessee, he’s got to guard Grant Williams. He’s got to guard Admiral Schofield, that’s going to be his match-up someway, somehow. The issue — the reason he got on Alabama’s guards late is because we were able to switch one-through-four. Can we do that again knowing it might put Jared Harper on Grant Williams if we do that? So that’s the decisions that we’re going to have to make in the next couple days as to how we’re going to guard them. Certainly, Chuma was, for us against Alabama, he was a go-to guy. He was a go-to match-up, offensively and defensively. Tennessee is a little bit more equipped to not allow me the luxury of just going at him and this match-up. I mean, he’s still going to be an important player in our scouting report. I can tell you what Tennessee’s scouting report is going to be: it’s going to be to get him in foul trouble. And, you know, we’ve got to do something about the fact that on 12 out of 17 contests, the opponents are shooting more free throws than we are. We’ve got to foul less and we’ve got to find a way to get to the foul line more. 12 in 17 games — that’s a mathematical problem.”

    On Tennessee forward Grant Williams: 

    “He’s been really good start to finish from the standpoint of his evolution as a player is incredibly physical. He has a great pinch-post top of the floor game where he’s able to drive it down field, and it’s hard to stay in front of him. He does a great job putting you behind him. He has incredible swim-stroke ability. He’s one of the hardest guys to officiate, too, because of the hook-and-hold things like that. He always has his hands up. He gets tangled up all the time and he’s really good at it. I’m sure they’re going to try to get Chuma Okeke tangled up and get him in foul trouble.”

    On the match-up between Chuma Okeke and Grant Williams”

    “Chuma is a great player. He’s got great ability inside and out, and there’s not a match-up out there offensively or defensively where he’s going to get overwhelmed. As the season progresses, he begins to — obviously one of the things I believe in, and I’ve said this for years: when you play against the best teams on your schedule, your best players have to play well. Our best players are going to have to play well to beat Tennessee. What happens is everyone is going to get challenged. Everybody is challenged. When you play against a team that’s in the middle of the league or bottom half of the league, then you have two or three players out there that have a favorable match-up. There are no favorable match-ups when you play a top 5 team. There is nothing but tough match-ups and tough match-ups coming off the bench. Therefore, your best players have to play well.”

    On if there is any hope that Auburn forward Austin Wiley will play against Tennessee:

    “Yes, there is hope Austin returns. He is still, I would say, probably doubtful for the game Saturday, but he’s not out. He had a great workout yesterday, and we’ll see how he is today.”

    Auburn guard Bryce Brown

    On if Tennessee is a fun match-up to end the season:

    “Definitely looking forward to it. We got things rolling after a win from Alabama. Just looking forward to getting this W against Tennessee and starting to roll in the SEC tournament.”

    On matching up with Tennessee:

    “Matching their physicality. Matching their effort and energy. We know they’re going to come fired up ready to cut down the nets on our court, and we’re determined as a team to not let that happen. Like I said, it’s on us to match their physicality because they’re a very physical team. They’re going to try to go inside against us. So, we’re ready for all that.”

    Ben McKee
    Ben McKee is a graduate from the University of Tennessee and has a degree in Journalism and Electronic Media. He grew up an Army brat and lived in Alabama for a bit, but he bleeds orange. He covers Tennessee football, basketball, baseball, and the Lady Vols for RTI, and he's also a co-host on the RTI Live Show and RTI Podcast. You can also hear Ben on the morning sports radio show "The Swain Event." He's the producer and co-host along with former Vol wide receiver Jayson Swain.