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Everything Rick Barnes said about season-opener against Colorado

Vols head basketball coach Rick Barnes met with the media on Monday afternoon to preview Tuesday’s season-opener against Colorado.

Barnes discussed the COVID-19 outbreak the Vols had to deal with, Tuesday’s season-opener, on if the team is behind since the first four games were cancelled, which players won’t be available in the opener and scheduling a three-game series with Colorado.

Here’s everything Barnes had to say:

This was transcribed by Tennessee Athletics Communication

On how far behind the team is after missing the first few games of the season:

“I think we’re behind, because like I said earlier, we had a chance to go up and down the floor three times in two weeks leading into tomorrow. I do think the older guys can handle it, more so than the younger guys. Our younger guys, the stops and starts have definitely affected them more in terms of their recall and being able to understand what we’re doing. Overall, I’ve got to think that these guys, I know they’re excited about playing. We got back early Friday and we went twice that day just to break it up, because we knew they would struggle with stamina. It’s just a tough practice when you’ve been off two weeks. They handled it well, and then we found out that the game with (UT) Martin would be canceled. By the next morning, we were in contact with Colorado and knew that maybe that was a possibility, so we had to readjust our schedule as opposed to practicing Friday and Saturday. We had to flip it where we little very little at all on Saturday, even though the game wasn’t totally submitted yet, to put us on our two-day prep that we like to do throughout the season. We are on schedule to that. This is the first time our young guys have gone through this. Normally, by now we would’ve had a two-day prep to get ready for an exhibition game. We don’t have any of that, and because of that we haven’t had the whole team on the bench together. Tomorrow, all that is going to be new to those guys. Even though we had started preparing prior to the shutdown to get ready for Charlotte and VCU. Today is actually the first time we have been able to do what we normally would do, and tomorrow will be the first time that we’ve had our whole team together on the same bench. Our substitutions, we can think about it, we don’t know how it’s going to play out. We don’t know foul situations, so our older guys will handle it better than you would expect, but the younger guys are going to have to learn on the fly. They’re going to be nervous. They don’t know exactly what to expect. We appreciate Colorado doing what they’re doing for us, and we were able to put this together quickly and we have a lot of respect.”

On if he will have everyone available for the game vs. Colorado:

“We’ll have two guys that won’t be playing. Corey Walker and Drew Pember.”

On his experience with having COVID:

“Well, the toughest part was just missing all of you guys. I just wanted to hug all you guys and tell you how much I love you. That was the hardest part about isolation. There wasn’t a day that I had it that I didn’t feel like I could go to work. I could’ve gone to work. I thought it progressively got worse for me around the sixth and seventh days. I’m really thankful for Tom Izzo. Tom reached out to me early. When I get sick, I expect to start getting better each day, and I was cruising along there pretty good. It probably took me twelve days before I felt really good, and I don’t think at any point in time I lost my sense of smell or taste, but I did lose my appetite.”

On scheduling a three-game series with Colorado:

“We were in the same situation with Notre Dame. We were going to play Gonzaga then drive over and play Notre Dame. We were going to play Notre Dame in a year where they would probably have 2,000 fans in the stands, and then a year later, we’re going to have 21,000 people in the stands. So, we’re going to work out some kind of compensation, because it wouldn’t be fair. So, with Colorado, we started talking. One, I think anytime you’ve got a chance to play a quality program with a coach that’s as upstanding and runs a clean and as good of a program as there is in the country, you want to be involved with them. I’ve got great respect for him [Tad Boyle]. They’re going to come in here tomorrow, and we’ve got about 3,500 people in the stands. I know when we go out there next year it will be sold out. So instead of exchanging money, we decided we would make a neutral game out of it and go to Nashville. We do want to have a presence in Nashville, and I think Nashville will receive it.”

On if having so many possible season opener opponents can help with tournament prep later in the season:

“We had started preparing for Charlotte and VCU back before we got shut down and coming out of that we only had one day where we did not do any preparation for UT Martin at all. We didn’t do anything Saturday in preparation for Colorado, because we weren’t sure yet that the game was actually going to go. While we were working on that game, we were in contact with two or three other schools that we possibly would have to get on the road and go play on a Wednesday, which at this point in time we were prepared to do whatever we had to do to get our season going. Tomorrow will be the first time that we have everybody sitting on the same bench together. We’re opening up this week with Colorado and ten we have Cincinnati, and it is what it is. We’re just glad to be playing, and I think our guys will tell you that they’re excited.”

On if having a Veteran team can eliminate tome of the issues that come with not having a preseason:

“Our older guys, they’ve been able to handle the stops and starts better than the younger guys. The older guys, they came into the gym and did what they were supposed to do. It’s the team concept where when we call something, the older guys get it and the younger guys are looking around saying ‘What was that?’ but that’s where we have to have a different package with some of those younger guys. The older guys, they should know. They should be able to handle it. The biggest thing we’ve tried to do is keep those young guys as fresh as we can and try to teach them how hard they are going to have to play.”

On what he likes out of Jordan Springer and Keon Johnson defensively:

“They both have the ability to guard the ball one on one, and they’re certainly going to get challenged with that tomorrow night. Both of those guys can rebound the ball. They have the ability to blow it out and go with it in transition, which I think really helps a lot. I think offensively, we’ll watch them grow up in front of us. One thing we expect out of both of them is to come in and guard the ball and we hope to create some havoc there.

On how important guard play is:

“It’s like playing baseball without a pitcher, catcher, shortstop, second baseman and center fielder. You’ve got no shot if you’re not good up the middle. You’ve got to have guys that know what they’re doing but also can break out and make plays when they have to. You’re going to compete every night against guys who can play. In our system, we put a lot of pressure on our point guard. We expect him to do a lot of reading, we expect him to get the ball where we want him to get it, and we expect him to attack space on the floor where we want to get the ball to start with. It’s important that those other guys get where they need to go so he can do his job. So, it’s not just the guard play. It’s everybody doing what they need to do so they can help each other all the time. You’re never going to look like you’re well coached if you don’t have good guard play. ”

On if most inside the program have dealt with COVID and if he feels like they can move smoothly from here:

“We’re close with everybody, but we still don’t have everybody. We’ve dealt with it. Like I said we’ve had three stops-and-starts and we’ve had one player miss 52 days because of contact tracing. And he never had it. There’s a ton of things we’ve had to deal with, with it. And I’ll say it again. I don’t think anybody can do anymore than what Chad Newman and Mary-Carter and our whole staff have done. What they did to help—I don’t know what I would have done differently. Even as we got closer to the season we were very, very conscious of what we were doing. We eve locked it down even more so, but once it got going there was no stopping it—with our staff especially. Even though some players had to deal with it, not everyone in our program has had it.”

On how many players he feels comfortable playing to start the season:

“It’s the first time here that we’ve had this situation, where among our scholarship players that of the 11 guys we’ll have out there tomorrow, we feel confident in all of them. I don’t think there’s any question about that. At some point in time every single one of our scholarship players has shown they can help us. The key word with that is consistency. What can we know in terms of what we’re going to get every single time they step on the floor. There’s not one guy on our team who hasn’t improved. Were we more ready to play two weeks ago than we are today? Absolutely. There’s no doubt we were. We had built it up to where we felt like we were ready to go and then we got shut down for two weeks. Going back to what I said earlier, I do feel like the older guys have been able to get going here a bit quicker than you would expect. But again, we’re just excited to play. Since I’ve been here, we haven’t had this many guys. But, the players will determine how many guys are going to play. It’s up to them. We tell them that if they do their job, then we’ll find a way to get them on the court.”

On if players were able to do things individually during the shutdown:

“We did a lot of shooting. We were trying to get 500 shots made a day with them. Not just 3-point shots either. Game shots, with game speed and game spots. It was hard obviously, because they’re on the court by themselves with a gun, shooting. They were allowed to have a manager that had been tested and ready to go. So, they were mostly getting shots up. One thing they did do, was continued to lift weights via Zoom. And Garrett Medenwald (Tennessee strength coach) worked hard on that from his end. We were going to follow the protocol in the exact way it was supposed to be done and our guys did that. And, they were tired, but it’s just not the same as five-on-five, going up and down the floor, getting your timing down where there’s 10 bodies moving with cutting and banging around. Now, I’m going to tell you, there isn’t anything more they could have done on their own. They pushed it as far as they could push it trying to get better with their individual skills. Not just shooting, they worked on their weaknesses.

“As you would expect the older guys — one of my first days back, Josiah (Jordan James) was in the weight room by himself doing a yoga workout on his own. The older guys understand their bodies and know what they need to do. That’s where the younger guys are still learning. Again, we’ve got a great and very unselfish group of guys. We have a group of guys that is unselfish almost to a fault at times, but they pull for each other. If it were up to them they would want everyone to play as much as possible, but tomorrow will be the first time we’ve been on the same bench together and we’ll see how it goes.”

On how players could work out during the shutdown:

“No, we could have three guys in there at one time. We could have one on each end and one in the middle. In most situations it was two guys in the gym, but it could be three. They were organized with their times. They were allowed to get a couple of hours a day in there where we had to rotate. Again, some guys even with as much as we asked them to do some of them wanted to come back and do more. We’ve got some guys that are real gym rats. But, most of the time it was two guys. They started sometimes at six in the morning and it would go until about 7:30 to 8 at night.”

On who he thinks the most improved player is:

“That’s a great question and it’s hard to give it to one guy, because I think every guy has gotten better. I think (Santiago Vescovi) came back in the best shape. He was never in great shape. He wasn’t even in great shape at the end of the year, because he didn’t have a chance to get himself in great shape, because of what he was thrust into. I think Fulky and Yves both have improved in terms of what we need from them. Josiah has definitely improved. Olivier and Uros have gotten more confident in terms of understanding the system and I think that’s going to help them. We have big plans for those guys. V.J. Bailey was with us a year ago. V.J. has done well. E.J. in a short time has improved as much as anyone in his short time. He had to do a shot make over, which he did. It’s going to help him and he’s going to do exactly what you tell him to do. The younger guys. We know those guys are talented, but the starts and stops have definitely hurt them. They’ve shown glimpses of what they can be, but they’ve struggled physically at times, because the older guys don’t need as much, but can go all day long. The younger guys can’t go all day long, but they need to and they’re having to learn that in a year where all of these starts and stops definitely affect that part of their game. I know I’m all over the place with that question, but it’d be hard for me to pick one guy, because I think all of these guys have worked hard to improve and we’re going to find out starting tomorrow if the guys who have improved can they bring it when the lights come on.”

On managing the team mentally during the pandemic:

“It would be exactly what you would expect when you get your expectations up. A week before we got shut down we were excited. Think about it, I had passed three straight COVID tests on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I wasn’t feeling very good, but I was ready to go. So, we come in on Sunday to get ready for the game the following weeks, I test positive and then we get shutdown. We were all excited. We were right where we wanted to be. We had spent 10 days where we finally had everyone out there. We were scrimmaging and we had been playing a lot. We had played our way into shape, because we had been shut down. When we came back from that second shut down, we said that we had to play, because we wouldn’t have an exhibition game. We had three scrimmages with referees and we had been building up. Then you go 13 days without getting up-and-down the floor and now we’re going to play four or five days later. There’s no doubt that each time we shut down—and if you asked the players during that time if it was tough for them to watch college basketball get off to a start and them not being able to play? Yes. I didn’t want to watch it. I’ll be honest with you, I had a hard time wanting to watch college basketball. I had a hard time wanting to watch anything to be honest with you. The fact is though, the players were wanting to play. It is an emotional drain on everybody, because you’re getting excited and want to play. If there’s one common denominator through this, it’s that every player will tell you, ‘We want to play.’ This is the longest in my life since I’ve been around a team where we haven’t played a game, but I’ve never ever been a part of a program where you decide on your first game three days before you play it and we still have a game we want to make up. Looking back, I wish the NCAA had set a blanket set of dates to play 27 games and to get rid of the MTE’s, because there’s a lot of teams that will want to scramble to make up games. We would love to get to 25 games if we can, but right now we just want to get going tomorrow night. I would say now that there isn’t a game we won’t be able to play, because of where we are, but we don’t know where our opponents are and what they’re going to have to deal with. I had talked with Mark Few about possibly playing later on and they had, had a situation down in Florida and they were talking about how they were going to transport players. He and I had talked a few different times even after they had played in Indianapolis when they were getting ready to play Baylor. And, we just don’t know. It could be a year like that where you get ready to play and all at once, you can’t. Believe me, in the grand scheme of the world it’s not that big of a deal, but in terms of the world we live in and what we’re trying to do with our young players here, yeah, it’s tough on them. But, like I said, hopefully we can get going here and be blessed enough to not have any more interruptions.”

On how John Fulkerson and Yves Pons have led the team through the pandemic:

“We don’t have a guy on our team who is a loud and vocal leader. The loudest guy on our team is Uros. He talks the way we want him to talk on the court. If I had to pick someone who’s led us through this is Mary-Carter Eggert. You wouldn’t believe what she has done to help these guys. You have no idea. She works 18 hours a day delivering food here, there and everywhere. I think that’s where the real leadership has come from. And, our guys have been great knowing there isn’t anything we can do about it other than that we have to protect each other and those around us. So, her and Chad Newman — Chad has been unbelievable with it. Chad has struggled with it as much as anybody, but through this whole thing Dr. Klenck and this university have been unbelievable. They really have. I don’t know what we could have done differently. You hear them talk, they say it is what it is and they would tell you what I said earlier. There are a lot of people that have had to deal with it in a lot worse ways. They know people have lost their lives, because of it and they would tell — and they have taken it very seriously. Our guys have taken it really serious and they still take it serious, because we still don’t have herd immunity or anything. We still wear masks in the film room, we’re spread out and we’re doing everything the way we’re supposed to. You wouldn’t believe the amount time we spend of how we do our timeouts during games. There’s so many things that they have talked about how we do things, but the one constant has been our guys doing what they’re supposed to do. I admire them for it, but the real leaders have not been our players, but our administrators who have been phenomenal.”

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