Rick Barnes is excited for round two of Tennessee-Memphis on Saturday afternoon inside of Thompson-Boling Arena, but he’s been more excited for practice this week.
“If I ever get to where I’m not excited to go to practice first, that’s when I know it’s time to quit,” Barnes said during his media availability on Tuesday. “It’s easy to be excited for games. You get your juices flowing for that. But I think the real key is if you love what you’re doing every day.”
No. 19 Tennessee (7-1) hasn’t played a game since last Wednesday. When the Vols and No. 13 Memphis (8-1) tip at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday afternoon, it will have been 10 days since the Vols’ most recent game — a 72-43 win over Florida A&M.
The break comes at a perfect time, as over the course of the break, Tennessee’s basketball players have had finals to wrap up the fall semester. Barnes has had to work around the exam schedule of his team while also focusing on getting better each and every day.
“I don’t think there’s anything we’re not trying to get better at,” Barnes stated. “You look at our team, one, we try to get better as a team, but we try to get better as individuals. We spend a lot of time with that.”
While the extended break has given Barnes and his staff time to spend individual time with the players, it’s also served as a time for Lamonte Turner’s nagging shoulder injury to receive more rest than usual. The senior guard leads the SEC and ranks fifth in the country in assists per game with 7.6, but he’s shooting just 31 percent from the field and 27 percent from the 3-point line.
“He does everything he can every day to do what he needs to do,” Barnes said of Turner’s injury. “It’s something that he has dealt with. He’s doing what he can to manage it. Our hope is that it’s going to continue to get better.”
Though Turner’s shoulder injury has bothered his shot and he’s turned it over more often than he normally does, the redshirt senior has found other ways to impact the game in addition to dishing out the basketball. Along with fellow senior guard Jordan Bowden, Turner’s leadership has been instrumental.
Turner didn’t play in last year’s 102-92 win over Memphis on the road due to a shoulder injury. Bowden did, however, but is one of just three players who played at least 10 minutes in last year’s battle. John Fulkerson and Yves Pons were the other two.
“They’ve (Turner and Bowden) been great leaders,” Barnes said. “Really you go back to the spring and the summer, even when both of them were out nursing through some injuries that they had to get taken care of before the season really started. But those guys have given us great leadership, and I continue to expect them to do that all year.”
The play of Turner and Bowden will be instrumental in Tennessee’s effort to win Saturday’s game. Freshmen Josiah-Jordan James, Davonte Gaines, and Olivier Nkamhoua may be the difference, however.
James is averaging 6.1 points while Nkamhoua is chipping in 5.8 points. Gaines is averaging 3.7 in seven games. Though the trio weren’t a part of last year’s game against the Tigers, they did witness big games in Thompson-Boling last season as recruits. Barnes is hoping those experiences help them settle in against Memphis, though he does realize that with it being their first time playing in such a game at UT, it’s something they’re going to have to go through.
“That’s where you would like to think your older guys are going to make sure they keep themselves emotionally ready,” Barnes said. “Not really expend that emotion and lose energy because of it.
“It should be a fun time. It should be a great atmosphere. I think it’s great for college basketball. It’s great for this state.”