Vols head basketball coach Rick Barnes met with the media following Wednesday’s 80-60 win over USC Upstate inside of Thompson-Boling Arena.
Barnes discussed his team’s depth, the play of Olivier Nkamhoua, where Uros Plavsic is at in his development, conference play, the play of John Fulkerson and Yves Pons, what he’s thankful for this Christmas and what he thought about his team’s performance against the Spartans.
Here’s everything Barnes’ said following Tennessee’s win:
On where Tennessee’s depth is with SEC play approaching:
“That’s certainly a positive, but I don’t think there’s any question about that. I thought the minutes this afternoon that Olivier (Nkamhoua) got were really big for us. I think it really helped him being out there a lot more at critical times to do what he was doing. I think that Uros (Plavsic) is a guy that we have confidence in. Both of those guys. EJ (Anosike) has shown that he’s a guy that can be a factor for us. I would like to see more consistency out of John and Yves to be quite honest with you. I don’t think those guys have played up to the standard that we expect from them right now. The younger guys struggled tonight. I think they struggled from a preparation standpoint. I don’t think they’ve had to go through at any point in their young careers where they’ve had to grind like this both mentally and physically. They just didn’t have the sting they normally have. I will say this too, I thought Upstate had a terrific game plan. They were going to shorten the game. This was probably as good of a game as we could have to get ready going into conference play because it’s different from what we have played. It shows that as much as we wanted to play at a faster pace or do this or do that, the other team has something to do with that. I thought they were really well coached tonight. They’ve had eight days off. I do think at times we played like a tired team. I don’t think our guys weren’t trying to play well. I don’t think mentally they didn’t want to play well. The grind that we’ve been through is something that we needed. Hopefully, it’s going to help us going forward.
“Just so you know, this sweater I have on is a birthday gift that Tom asked me to give him. Plus, he wants a little Christmas bonus, but he’s asked if I could wear this tonight for him. I want you to know I’m doing this for Tom Satkowiak.”
On the status of Vols’ sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James after having his knee checked out towards the end of the game:
“He’s fine. I thought Josiah played terrific tonight. I thought Santi did his job when you look at the assist-to-turnover ratio and making some threes when he needed to. He had one sloppy turnover that he can’t have. He had a poor breakdown at the end of the half, where he didn’t get back and they could have made that layup there at the end of the half. We don’t want to end play like that. Josiah was good in a lot of different areas. Not just rebounding the ball, but his deflections tonight. We didn’t get as many deflections as we wanted but he probably had more than anybody.”
On what he liked about sophomore forward Olivier Nkamhoua’s performance:
“The best play he made was the block. We always talk about fix-it plays, but too many times when we talk about fix-it plays, we go right to Yves Pons. who does a good job at fix-it plays, but tonight, (Olivier) did. Keon has taken more charges than anybody on our team. Those fix-it type plays. Olivier looked more relaxed overall tonight than any point in time since he’s been here. I thought he really moved well without the ball. He made some really nice basket cuts and he was very comfortable catching the ball and finishing at the rim.”
On the upside of the team with Nkamhoua coming off the bench:
“It’s huge. We feel like Uros (Plavsic) is there too. It’s hard to go 10-deep at times. We said to these guys, ‘at some point in time this year, we’re going to need them all.’ For whatever reason, we feel that way. Uros is as unselfish as any player that I’ve ever been around. He knows that he needs to get better in some areas like we all do. He is a guy that is a big-time teammate. Always pulling for his team and a player that we’re confident with putting him in the games and we think he’ll do the job. It would’ve been good for him to have a game where he gets the minutes like Olivier had tonight, but he did finish the game really well. The other night passing the ball, scoring and he will work and he will be ready when he’s called on.”
On if USC Upstate was a learning experience for Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson:
“I think it is good experience for them, and I will tell you, there aren’t two better kids, but they’re young and they are doing some things. Jaden was playing against a guy tonight he’s probably never heard of, and we told him has the ability to make threes as well as anybody we play. He looked surprised when a guy raised up, and he looked surprised again, like what am I supposed to do, so that’s part of the growing process where you’ve got to realize he’s playing at a higher level than he’s ever played, and they are learning a lot. The other night when I put Jaden back in the game, I said, ‘Hey Jaden I want you to go in the game and I want you to think like a point guard, play like a point guard, and get Olivier and Uros some confidence by really trying to set those guys up,’ and he goes back in the game and he charges and gets five fouls and has to come out and after the game he said no one had told him that. That is what’s fun coaching these guys, because you’re trying to help them become everything they want to become and yet they are doing it in the heat of the moment in a game.
“The great thing is the upside for those guys is there, but it is our job as coaching staff to keep putting demands on them and asking them to do more than they have ever done before and show them things in games they never thought about, but tonight there is no question that there preparation wasn’t good yesterday and we didn’t do a lot yesterday, it was more mental, but they have never gone through a grind like this. There is no doubt they want to play hard and they are going to play hard and take pride in it, but it’s just a mental side it that’s right before Christmas and probably thinking we have been in a couple games ahead 30-40 points and you think they are all like that, but they’re not. USC Upstate had a terrific game plan and for us it’s probably what we needed more than beating someone by 30 or 40 points.”
On what he thought about Tennessee’s perimeter defense:
“We talked about the 3-point shot with St. Joe’s the other night, these guys actually have more experience and have guards that have been doing this for a couple years and they’re all back. Tonight was good with the fact that we got to do some trapping and it was good for us, even though we might have gotten one out of it. We gave up one certainly on a dunk in transition, but I did not like our ball screen coverage and we are normally better at that, but again I thought they handled it and I thought their players and coaching staff did a great job.
“The other night we got spread out too much against St. Joe’s and then tonight they were patient, and our guards didn’t do a very good job of getting back in front of the ball. They kept stringing it out and we switched like we do when the clocks under 10 minutes normally, and they did a great job of getting it there. They went at John Fulkerson in the post, but with threes, they are going to make some and that’s what they do. Yet, with that said, I don’t know if you can do more but try to push them out a bit further and overall we were okay, but you go into every game trying to take away their top two options the best way you can, and we’ve done a pretty good job at it, but not very good tonight and you got to give their team, coaches, and players respect because I thought they played with great poise.”
On if playing four games in eight days will prepare Tennessee for the tournament:
“We got to see a lot through these games and we got to see different styles. Tonight was a much different style and I do think the different matchups we’ve had to deal with throughout these games — we’ve had to put in there and the preparation that goes into it, we have seen a lot, and teams have gone zone against us and I’m glad because we handled it ok tonight, the only thing we aren’t doing is listening enough—mainly with the younger guys—and tonight I think John Fulkerson didn’t get to his spots quick enough. And conditioning is something we will get better at, like most teams will, but the stoppage of play has hurt all of us at some point in time, but overall with the schedule we got put together, I appreciate the teams that were able to help us and juggle with some things here and there and now we’ll get down to where we will be playing two games a week and get into a rhythm that way, which I hope will help us continue to move forward.”
On how Tennessee handle Christmas with its players:
“We’re keeping the guys here and they are going to stay three days, but again the admin has done a great job and getting the parents that can be here and most of them will have a chance to be here. Obviously, our foreign players and Davonte (Gaines) won’t have parents here, but the fact is, talking to parents and hearing from them too, we want to play basketball and don’t want to do anything to create disruption for our team, and we just came to a conclusion it is best we all stay here and get some rest, and there’s no doubt we need rest, our young guys more than older guys, so these next three days we’ll be off and come back and then get ready for conference play.”
On why he feels Tennessee isn’t getting the most out of Yves Pons and John Fulkerson:
“Consistency is the big word for all of our team. I think Yves has to be more consistent at rebounding. I think he has to get to the foul line more. I do not care if he makes a three-point shot all year. I know that when he takes his shot that he works on, he is a high percentage three-point shooter. But the fact is, he has not rebounded the ball the way he is capable of night-in and night-out. I think that he should average double-digit rebounds. And because of that, I think that he should be able to get to the foul line more. I think he should be the hardest guy in the country to block out. He does (contribute) defensively; I do not think that there is any question that he is locked in trying to do that.
“I mentioned this to the team; we have really high expectations for our guys. And we are demanding because I do not want any of those guys to look back and think man I could have done more, I could have done this, I could have done that. But we also learned tonight that different teams can play different ways. But I think that those two guys, because of the time they have been with us, we have extremely high expectations for them. Where we expect them to be on top of it every single night. If you go back and look through this stretch that we have been on, I would say that the guy who has been the most consistent is Josiah. When you think of what he has been able to do. Now VJ has done some good things again; no one has been perfect by any stretch including me and the coaching staff. But the fact is, we have very high expectations for our older guys in terms of them showing the way for the guys who are going through this for the first time.”
On his Christmas sweater:
“This is actually Tom Satkowiak’s wardrobe. This is what he wears. He came in and asked me to wear this, and it is very ugly, to be quite honest with you. But he asked me to do it, and I did it so I could also take a picture of it and send it to my grandkids. But if you saw it in person you would not be very impressed.
On his favorite Christmas gift as a kid:
“Well, I told our guys today my comment to them during our power talk was when I was a kid, it was certainly all about me. It was all about wanting to get presents. When I was a kid in the second grade, believe it or not, our house caught on fire on Christmas eve. The furnace blew up, and there was smoke everywhere. And my mother told me to run down the street and pull the fire alarm, and my sister went with me. And she said we called my grandfather daddy, go get daddy and get him up here. So, we got to the fire alarm, and I pulled the fire alarm and then told my sister, you go get Daddy. And I went back with one thing in mind, underneath the Christmas tree. And I was looking for my presents to get them out of the house. And my mother asked me what I was doing, and I said I am getting my presents.
“But now it’s all about giving. I have been blessed. God has blessed me with so many wonderful blessings. This time of year, it is about Jesus Christ and about what he gave and wanting to emulate that. We have so many people since I have been in Knoxville that do so much for people here in Knoxville who do not want it, but they need it. And it has been fun to be a part of different organizations that have taken care of a lot of families in Knoxville this time of year. And that is what I am most thankful for and most proud to be a part of.”
On his message to his team this Christmas:
“Well, I will go back to when we first left Nashville. When you think about it, it has been such a different year for so many different people. We have so much to be joyful for because I mean, you think about what has happened over the last seven months. People have lost their lives, people have lost their grandparents, parents, people have lost a lot. But when I look at it, there is so much to be joyful for too. God has blessed us in a lot of different ways. With our players we have asked them since day one to sacrifice and that it is going to be different for them, and again it is hard this time of year because I have always believed that you should be with your family on Christmas.
“As much as you can and be with your family I just think it is the greatest day in the country. The day that Jesus was born. I think it is the most important day. I really do appreciate our administration working out a way to get the parents that can be here, to be here to be with each other. And I also appreciate the parents saying, ‘Hey we know our sons want to play basketball, and whatever we have to do to protect them during this time of year we have to do that.’ It is important to them and we know they want to play. So, I think we all have a lot to be thankful for. And I know that our parents, our players, are not a better group in the country. And I am thankful that we get a chance to do what we have been able to do with them.”