Vols assistant basketball coach Mike Schwartz met with the media on Thursday to preview this year’s Tennessee basketball team.
Schwartz discussed the difficulty of putting a schedule together because of COVID-19, Tennessee’s freshmen guard duo of Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, the most improved player over the offseason, and how many options the team has at point guard.
Here’s everything Schwartz said:
On the excitement of playing No. 1 Gonzaga in less than two weeks:
“Well it’s a great opportunity, a really good opportunity. We know the kind of reputation Gonzaga has as a program, even more so this year as the number one ranked team in the country, so it will be a great test for our guys. We’ve had some good matchups with them in the past, Coach Barnes and Coach Few have a great relationship and we remember the game a few years ago in Phoenix. We’ve played in Nashville, we’ve played out in Seattle and it’s turned into a great series. I think our guys are just excited to be playing. They’re equally excited about next Wednesday as they are that game and any game on our schedule, but to be able to play in the Jimmy V and make that thing happen, with all the adversities that have happened in New York, Orlando, and now up in Indianapolis, it’s going to be a great event and I think our guys are really excited and it will be a great challenge for our team.”
On the scheduling conflicts Tennessee had to deal with:
“I think it’s been crazy for anybody, every coach, anybody involved with scheduling trying to get something nailed down for this kind of season. It’s been a challenge. The first challenge was when they moved the date. You obviously had games that were between November 10th and November 25th, and that was the first piece of the challenge was that you had games that were scheduled and so what do you do with those games? For example, Wisconsin still wanted to figure out a way we could play but we would have to move the dates. There were the challenges of the games that were prior to the new start date that you had to figure out. Then after that you had to look at what’s going to fit and probably the biggest challenge, as you eluded to Grant, was the MTE’s (Multiple Team Events). When they started moving the MTE’s, changing the dates, teams started being able to add teams, teams started dropping out because of all the different medical protocols, that’s when it really got complicated to be honest with you. Our approach the whole time was we were going to stick with ESPN, stick with Orlando, regardless of what it was, and we were pretty close to it going out there, and if everything had gone the same way there would have been one other team in the event, with VCU and Charlotte, we would have done it in Orlando, and we were planning on playing Gonzaga in Orlando, but when everything fell apart in Orlando, obviously we had to readjust. So, what our approach was Grant, was just to stay with the teams we were going to play with in Orlando, and that was VCU, Charlotte, and potentially Penn State. Those were the teams and we decided to create our own event, we’re very thankful and appreciative of the University and the Administration and our Athletic Department to allow us to do that here, and it didn’t quite work out for Penn State for other reasons, but to be able to get VCU and Charlotte to be able to come to Thompson-Boling is really exciting and we’re looking forward to the Vol classic.”
On if Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson have exceeded expectations:
“You’re absolutely right about the expectations, that’s the nature of recruiting, that’s the nature of the labels that get put on guys in terms of the stars as you mentioned, and McDonald’s All-American status and things like that. The best two things both of those guys have done since the minute they stepped on campus is, they take defense personally, they play with an aggression and an attack mindset on the defensive side of the ball, and they are both extremely talented on offense. They’re going to have great seasons, they’re going to help us in a ton of different ways, but what they did from the minute they stepped on campus—which is not always the case, particularly with as you mentioned a 5-star player, someone that has great accolades coming in and expectations on them—is they came in with grittiness, and a defensive mindset that fits right into our DNA and right into our culture. I don’t want to use the word surprised by that, but they’ve stepped right in and from that standpoint they are not Freshman.”
On how ready the team is to start the season:
“I think we’ll know more Wednesday night when that game ends, and the reason I say that is this; we have not had the opportunity to have 13 guys on one bench yet. We’ve scrimmaged within ourselves four different times, pretty officially with officials and everything. Bottom line is you have seven guys on one bench, six on the other, and there’s a lot of things you have to maneuver to be able to make that happen and get a real feel, but it’s a totally different story when you have all 13 guys, 15 guys on one bench, and rotation comes into play, fatigue comes into play, scouting report comes into play, so those are things we have not had a chance to really feel yet with this ball club. Normally by this time of the year we’ve had one exhibition game versus a Non-Division I, and we have one scrimmage versus a Division I opponent, and those are two big opportunities that nobody in the country is getting. I think if you ask that across the country, everyone would say we’re waiting until November 25th or whenever the first game is to really get a feel on where we are as a ball club, and we’ll know more after Wednesday and Friday next week.”
On the SEC becoming a strong basketball conference:
“That is a really strong stat pertaining to the number one pick. I think this league is as strong as any conference in the country. It is as talented as any conference in the country. It is not just the number one pick to me. If you look at it and it is either three or four I believe lottery picks came out of the SEC. Aaron Nesmith was one of them and obviously Anthony Edwards was another one. I think there was four or five in that range, so it’s an extremely strong conference with NBA talent, with teams and with coaches, so you know you could look at it that way and you could look it over the last 10 years the uptick that the conference is on from the standpoint of talent and teams. So, there is no doubt about that, and I think those things just show it — Okoro from Auburn. Obviously, another lottery pick, so yeah I think that’s a good way of looking at it in NBA talent.”
On the most improved player on the team from last season:
“I think it would be unfair honestly to categorize one player in that because of what you just said. These guys did not get a true offseason. Everybody had to do it in their own way, in their locale wherever they were. Then when we got here, we were limited in a number of ways in terms of time that we could be with them and that we could all be in the gym together. Then, we were limited in terms of competition and physicality. So, I think it’s hard to give it to one guy because I think we’ll know more as we get into the season as we were talking about earlier. But just in general, you think about John Fulkerson and he’s added a lot to his game on offense and as great as he was second half of last season, he’s added a lot to his game. Josiah-Jordan James has added a lot to his game and he is trying to develop a new identity as a player where he uses his size more and his versatility to play multiple positions on both ends of the floor. Drew Pember has worked really hard this offseason. You know he was hit as it’s well-known by now and been talked about, he was hit with a lot of contact tracing and he missed a lot of days but the progress he has made—but as you know Rob as well as anyone the player development piece whether there’s someone that that plays 30 or 40 minutes a game or someone that doesn’t ever touch the floor the player development piece is happening every day in a Coach Barnes program and we’re really excited about all the guys the way they’ve grown in what they’ve added to the game. VJ Bailey who no one’s really saw last year he has had a great offseason. The big thing, as Gustavo was talking about earlier, is going to be how we react when we get 13 guys on one bench and how when happens that’s when we’re really going to be able to start to decipher some of these questions.
On the development of senior forward Yves Pons:
“Yeah it’s awesome for him and this is what coaching is about. This is what any Coach Barnes program is about. It has always been that way ever since I was fortunate to be a player for him and a young assistant for him. That is everything. These guys having a chance to reach their goals get where they want to go, have success on the court, have success off the court and he’s a great example of it and you know what, he deserves all the credit because of his work ethic and his approach every day. He has got an incredible attitude. He has been a team first player from the minute I stepped on campus. Rob you and I have talked about this before, the day he stepped on campus, the first thing he said is, ‘I just want to be the defensive player of the year in this conference’ and that’s where his goals always have been weighted. He wanted to be a dominant defensive player and he knows he still needs to be better in that area, but he takes a lot of pride in how he works. He takes a lot of pride in the team and he trusted the process and that’s probably as rewarding as anything to see someone who really trusted their own process, was diligent about it and you know it’s paying off in front of all of our eyes.”
On Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson’s defensive ability as freshmen:
“It is a really good question. Absolutely you saw it because they play with the fierceness and a tenacity on both sides of the ball. They are very strong, athletic wing guards that play the game above what a typical freshman or high school senior would play, but anytime somebody is that highly regarded — and both of them were highly regarded on offense as well — and they come in, but their focus and their mindset that they take it very serious on that side of the ball? Both have a long way to go, so I do not want to set any expectations. They both have a long way to go. Learning defense, off ball defense in particular, scouting reports which we talked about is going to be a big thing for both of them that we’ve tried to introduce to them in the best way possible within our own team. On ball and a mindset of defense, both guys are ahead of where typical freshmen are and we did see that in the recruiting process. You could see that because of the tenacity they both played with.”
On guiding the team through COVID this season:
“The first part is — I’m going to be honest with you, we as coaches are doing our best to guide them through that process, but we haven’t been through it either. None of us have been in a situation where we’ve walked into an arena and you’re just on the court playing. So, we haven’t spent a whole lot of time talking about it, other than when you’re in between the lines, whether there’s 50,000 people or no one there, you have to do your job an execute. And I think that’s our approach. Again, so much will be felt next week when we’re in TBA and there’s whatever the fan attendance is, or when we go to Indianapolis and play in Bankers Life Arena and if there’s no fans in there, we’re all going to be going through it for the first time. So, we’ve really kept the focus in between the lines.
“The other part of it with the pandemic is things normally are very organized. You’re talking about month-to-month, we have calendars, week-to-week you have calendars and especially day-to-day. But, things can change at the drop of a minute right now. That’s just what it is. If something comes up, you may have to suspend something. If something changes, you may have to delay something, and we saw that with scheduling. We’ve had practices scheduled and we’ve had to take a break just to be smart and come back the next day. Our guys are very cognizant of it. They watch the NBA, they watch the NFL, they see college football, we saw what happened with our own football team last week, so they realize this. We’re just trying to do everything we can to be prepared for the unknown. That’s really what sports is this year and that’s to be prepared for the unknown and be prepared for surprises as best as possible. So, toughness and the ability to adapt are going to be just as important as preparation is when it comes to a successful season for every team this year.
“As far as the seniors and having John Fulkerson and Yves Pons — you can even throw EJ Anosike in there, because he’s been in college for three years. We were talking as a staff this morning about how Victor Bailey Jr. has played two years of high-level college basketball and that it’s really exciting to have that veteran leadership on the team. However, here’s the one thing this team doesn’t have yet. Last year at this time, all of these guys — including John Fulkerson and Yves Pons — were looking to Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden. Those two were the seniors who had been through the start of a training camp, the end of a training camp and the beginning of a season. What John Fulkerson and Yves Pons did last year, we all felt they could do it, but they weren’t the guys that people were looking to at the beginning of last season. It was all Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, because they had been in it from the previous years. So, John and Yves are still in relatively new positions right now. Yes, they did it at the end of last year and yes, they know what to expect, but they have never been in September, October, November, getting younger guys ready for a season, knowing the difference between what the last six or eight weeks held and what next Wednesday night will hold. They haven’t been in that position where they’ve had younger guys looking to them asking ‘What’s next Wednesday going to be like?’
“So, we’re still going through it and if you think about it, a year ago, no one really knew who Santiago was. So, we look at him as a veteran on this team, because he is the starting point guard and has been, but he hasn’t been through the beginning of a season yet. This is the first beginning of the season that Santiago Vescovi has been through at the University of Tennessee. This is exciting though Rick, because there’s still a lot of growth for this team to have, and we’re going to see that happening.”
On what he’s learned about this team during the preseason:
“We’ve learned a lot of things, but probably the two biggest things would be, on the defensive side is we have the ability to pressure the ball for as long as we want, as much as we want and we’re going to do it. We’re going to be a high tempo aggressive and attack minded defensive team, because we have the depth and the athleticism to do that. On the other side of the ball, what we’ve been able to learn is that we really feel like we have four guys and maybe five guys that can go and get their own shot. Coach has made adjustments to our offense to be able to put them in positions to be able to do that. In terms of spacing and tempo we have four or five guys that can really go and get their own shot and we haven’t had that in the past. So, those would probably be the two biggest things”
On the defensive potential of this year’s team:
“Yeah, because we’ve been able to implement our system. It’s one thing to know you have the physical tools to do it, it’s another thing to know you have the depth to do it, which we’ve really felt like that since March. We’re always excited about our team defensively, but to be able to see it over the last eight weeks with our system, with the buy-in, with the defensive I.Q., with the guys understanding what we’re trying to accomplish has definitely gotten us more excited.”
On if it surprises him that Keon Johnson said that Santiago Vescovi is the toughest to guard on the team:
“No, it doesn’t, because Santiago plays with great speed, he has an incredible feel and I.Q and he’s one of the craftiest players with the ball. Whether it’s off the bounce, whether it’s passing the basketball, he’s got a great ability—even if he may not be looked at as a dynamic athlete—to get to where he needs to go with the ball. He uses his own strengths and other people’s strengths against them when he’s got the ball. So, for example he knows how to use Keon’s aggressiveness and athleticism as a positive for him when he has the ball, even though he’s not as physically strong and fast as Keon. But, he knows how to use Keon’s strength—because his athleticism and speed are huge strengths for him—and Santiago with his ability, feel and ball skills, uses that against Keon and it’s been great. It’s been great for Keon and you know what? It’s been equally good for Santiago, because we know teams are going to try to pressure with him. We know teams are going to try and be physical with him. We know teams are going to try and be physical with him. We know teams are going to try and sit on his left hand and make him use his right hand. So when he gets an elite athlete like Keon Johnson, or VJ Bailey, or the size of Josiah James guarding him, he continues to improve his skill level and craft in terms of being difficult to guard like Keon talked about.”
On the conversations with seniors about potentially coming back for a second senior season:
“They’ve occurred a little bit. More in passing than they have in any kind of seriousness at this point. I think it’s one thing for football to have that conversation five or six games into a season. We haven’t even stepped onto the court yet for our first game yet. So, I think those conversations will happen, but I think the season will tell a lot for anyone who has that opportunity.”
On if they have the potential to be a good rebounding team:
“That’s a really great point and we know it needs to be. We can’t be the team we want to be if we don’t rebound the way we’re capable of. Adding E.J. was a big piece of that, but as you mentioned, Olivier and Uros have done a really nice job in the preseason with rebounding and we need it to carry over. When those guys get their opportunity on the court it has to carry over. It has to carry over with defensive rebounding and it has to carry over with an identity that we want to have, which is as a great offensive rebounding team. There’s been a great emphasis on that in the preseason, in our film sessions and in practice.
“Just as important for that though is the guys who need to improve their rebounding is Yves Pons. Yves Pons should be in the class with those guys as a rebounder and he needs to take a lot of pride in doing that and needs to make a concerted effort to go beyond the glass on both sides of the ball. Someone who’s done a really good job of it — and his numbers showed it a little bit last year — but he’s been really effective this preseason particularly in offensive rebounding has been Josiah. Josiah-Jordan James has done a really nice job offensive rebounding. We had a scrimmage yesterday and he probably kept four or five balls alive while crashing the offensive glass. He has a knack to rebound the basketball and on the defensive side where that can really help us is if he rebounds the ball, he can lead the break, because Santiago or any one of our guards can run the wings. Whether he’s at the two, the three, the four, or the point guard spot, if he rebounds and he can lead the break, that puts in a really good position with our transition offense.”
On what E.J. Anosike has brought to the team:
“Extreme blue-collar toughness, rebounding, energy and a guy Rob that has played for what’s on the front of his jersey from the minute he stepped foot in the gym. Because of the unique situation with his sister Nicky being a Lady Vol, he stepped in right away with the mentality that he is playing for Tennessee and he is all about the team and the right things. A grad transfer is a unique thing. You’ve got someone coming for one year. They may have been somewhere else for four years, developed a lot of pride at whatever other university they were at and they come in looking for something specific for one year. E.J. is different. E.J. deep down inside has always been a Vol. And we wish we had a chance to have him for four years, but the fact is that he’s come in with the mentality of this team’s DNA and culture from day one. That’s as big as anything and is really important. He plays that way, we love him for it, he’s an extremely high energy and high motor player and he has been very impressive on the glass and that’s what this team needs. He plays the game within our culture and he gets it.”
On how many options Tennessee has at point guard:
“Well, Santiago for sure. Josiah for sure. Keon Johnson has gotten great reps at it this preseason. Jaden Springer has gotten not quite as many as Keon at it this preseason, but he is working on it. And, VJ Bailey as well. So, I would say that we have five guys who can be the primary ball handler on the floor. The difference is knowing that position, knowing what coach wants, knowing how to run the ball club and doing that at the level that we need our point guards to do it. I wouldn’t say we have five guys who are ready to do it right now—I would say we have two or three who could get that accomplished—but I really believe we have four or five guys that are capable of playing that spot from a ball handling perspective and are able to run that position if need be.
“In a year like this — we all know foul trouble and you all know of normal situations that can happen game-to-game — where there’s so much unknown, it’s nice to have three or four guys that we’re comfortable with handling the basketball.”
On if having so many point guard options make them harder to guard:
“Hopefully. I think when we play other teams and they have multiple point guards on the floor, it is a challenge. It’s kind of what we alluded to you earlier with a rebound-and-go as we call it. If a guard rebounds the ball and he’s not at the point guard position and he pushes the ball and gets us in our offense, that’s lethal in transition. So, if you play two or three point guards—if there’s a lineup with Santiago, Josiah and Keon on the floor at the same time, which will happen, and you saw that lineup, any three of them could get the rebound and lead the break. That is going to make you that much more explosive in transition. You want to believe that Jimmy that it can make you harder to guard if you can play multiple point guards at the same time. Or as we say it, someone that has point guard skills. You don’t have to be a point guard, but if you have point guard skills—that’s probably a better way to say it. We think we have four or five guys with point guard skills.”