Vols head coach Rick Barnes met with the media following Tennessee’s win over Arkansas on Wednesday night to discuss what his team did to overcome its halftime deficit and beat the Razorbacks 79-74.
Barnes discussed John Fulkerson’s second half performance, his decision to start Keon Johnson over Victor Bailey Jr., how beneficial it was for the young players to win a close game, what he saw from Jaden Springer after his left ankle injury, Josiah-Jordan James’ performance and why Uros Plavsic receiving minutes in the first half.
Here’s everything Barnes had to say:
On what his message to John Fulkerson was at halftime:
“Well, the message was really for the younger guys to understand that he needed to get the ball so we could establish our inside-out game, whether it was he or Yves. John had struggled, but I thought he answered the bell coming out in the second half and he was able to get the ball not even necessarily to score it, but to play inside-out. We like those step-in threes, and he made a couple good passes out. You look at the shot chart in the first half – Keon and Jaden had taken more shots than Yves and Fulky – we said we want those guys to be aggressive, but they have got to let those guys touch the ball some and play off of them.”
On his decision to start Keon Johnson:
“What’s nice about it is we have told all the guys that if we are going to finish games we have to be able to that. He has put a lot of time in his free-throw shooting. Our plan was we had thought about starting he and Jaden both, but from Jaden’s injury Saturday, he wasn’t able to practice on Monday and he only had one day of prep to get ready. I’ve said it before – we are going to keep changing the lineup – we are going to keep searching until we find the exact role for everybody and we’ll keep doing that. I was really pleased at the end of the game, and I do think that Jaden and Keon both got defensively hurt early in the game as they were playing a level of competition they haven’t played against consistently. They are both playing and learning how to play off-ball defense, and they have this tendency to hug up a bit more. Early in the second half they were getting cut up pretty good by being on edge. The same goes with VJ and all those guys have to get better for us off the ball. They need to understand that sometimes there are just some emergency fix it plays. On the offensive end you start the game- thinking about coming back after a loss as bad as we were Saturday – you want to come out and play well. We are going to miss some jump shots and we didn’t shoot it particularly well tonight. It’s the rim shots – when you start missing those you can feel the tension build, and it puts much more of a burden on your defense, guys get more hesitant, and you can’t play offensive basketball like that. What you do have to learn to play is how we’re supposed to play as a team to get things going where we stay in rhythm. I hope we learned something from that tonight. Josiah was terrific from start to finish. He was a guy that you could just tell was locked in, and in the second half when Fulky came out, he did as we expected him to do.”
“Most of these lineups we change, because of the defensive purposes. The last game Santi and Vj were terrible on defense, especially with the points they gave up, and our guards can’t do that. When they are not playing to the scouting report, I don’t care how many points they score because they are giving up more and if they score 10, but give up 12 or 14, it can’t happen. We looked at it and with VJ being with us a year and a half – we don’t expect him to make the defensive mistakes he is making. He was shooting the ball well, but we took him out tonight because he broke down twice. He gets beat on out of bounds plays where he just relaxes for second. I told him when I took him out, ‘You can’t be a finisher if you can’t play defense better than that these last seven or eight minutes.’ “
On if John Fulkerson responds well to criticism:
“He does, but in his defense. He is banged up a bit as he has got a little injury with his left hand and the injury does bother him. Fulky is a guy that wants to see his teammates do well too and sometimes he defers too much. Tonight, in the second half I told him that it doesn’t matter and he has to make the guys around him better – he is going to draw a crowd – go get them some wide open shots. He needed to get moving and I told him that nobody will block his shot if he plays quicker and more aggressive. If he gets in there and starts trying to pivot and do this and that, you will not a chance to play one on one because they are coming after you. I thought he did a better job with that, but I do know he has had some trouble with his left hand.”
On how beneficial is was for the young guys to win a close game:
“I think it’s huge – I told them Saturday get ready for those games from here on out. We are going to be in those kinds of games, and we haven’t been in a lot of them, even though you go back with Colorado and Cincinnati with those games. It was different and now that you are in conference play – coaches know you and everyone knows what’s coming. It gets tougher and we have to get better and we said with eight or nine minutes to go to get ready and strap up because we will be in these kinds of games all year. We are going to have to make plays and help each other and that’s what we expect. To answer your question – it’s great because we did get some life there and Josiah got it going there for us and we broke it lose. We had forced 20 turnovers and we should’ve had more points off those turnovers, but we didn’t and that goes with credit to them. They turned it over 20 times and I don’t know what we got out of it, but we got a lot. In the second half –we need to get the guys to understand that in our transition game – we can still play through our post players, we can do that. They get going so fast sometimes they don’t see it, so that’s why slowed them down to make them understand this is how we will do things – half court or full court – along with that we tell them if they are open to shoot the ball, because we work too hard at it and we can go rebound it. To win one like this, hopefully it can help us.”
On what he saw from Jaden Springer:
“I have a lot of confidence in Jaden. I think that Jaden is still playing his way into shape. I don’t think that there is any question about that. I don’t think he is totally 100 percent with his ankle yet, but he showed toughness by going out there. He said I want to play. And that is why he probably missed those shots around the rim, because he does not normally do that. He doesn’t, he is as good of a finisher as we have and arguably our second-best post player. But I think that the more he and Keon can play and they understand what they are up against every night, the better they are going to get and the better we can become as a team.”
On the difference in shooting percentage between the first and second half:
“I always think it is better when we play the way that we practice. And that way, we are looking to play high percentage basketball. And we want to shoot threes, but we want to do it on our terms. We want to drive the ball hard. We want to make the right decisions and move the ball. And when we get to the wide-open three we want to take it. We have a pretty good mixture. They went to zone a couple of times, which I think was the first time Eric’s done that since we played them the last two years, and Jaden and those guys were looking. They had a couple of balls deflected backward. But overall, I would say the second half is more how we want to play. We have a combination of what we get in transition and we want to execute what we call.”
On the importance of forcing Arkansas into 20 turnovers:
“Well, it is important. It is, and it is important trying to get to the free-throw line. But I just go back to looking at it here, and I know we missed those layups. I think we fouled two three-point shooters. We had a major mess up at the end of the first half where we planned for one shot, and VJ had the ball. He started things way too early, and Jaden goes in like he is going to lay it up against a 7’3 to 7’6 guy and that gave them way too much time to go down and score. At the time Santi was not out there we had VJ and Jaden, and I was trying to run a little action to get us going downhill. We are telling them to wait, wait, wait, but they didn’t. And so you take away the 3-point shots, and you take away the foul which gave them points, and you talk about the missed layups and those mental plays that we made. But going back to what Rob said, the way we won it I hope in the long run is going to be better for us. Because we had to really fight, scratch, and claw against a traffic team that is coached well. They are 9-2 and lost their first game, and are without a key player. They are a difficult team to guard. They do some good stuff offensively and shoot the ball well. They had a great look at one where if they would have hit it it would have put them up one, and it would have been a momentum change. But we rebounded the ball, and again I am just happy that it worked out for us.”
On Josiah-Jordan James’ focus after losing his belongings in a house fire that happened in his home recently:
“You know Josiah is just an incredible human being. His mom waited until after the game Saturday to tell him what had happened. And he is the kind of guy that keeps locked in himself, and I am sure he has not been home in a while, but he is probably thinking back that it is all gone. He lost everything in his room. I remember the night we went in and recruited him. I went up into his room, and he had a North Carolina poster in his room. All I said to him is I told him how sorry we were about what had happened, but at least that poster got burnt up. But he handles it well, and he is such a mature guy. But his mom just said for us to keep an eye on him because he is the kind of guy that will hold things in. But he is such a hard worker, and he is as good of a teammate as you want to be around. And he is quickly starting to become the voice of this team in terms of talking during timeouts talking to guys when they are down. He is the first guy to go up to them, and encourage guys, and all those kinds of things. But I am sure somewhere in the back of his mind he has thought a lot about it. But obviously, his main thought was that everybody was safe. But I am sure it will even hit him more when the season is over with, and he goes home, and it is not home anymore.”
On how Tennessee’s energy in the second half led them to a comeback win:
“It’s important because if you let a team like Arkansas stretch it out on you, they’re a hard team to come back against. Once they get going, like most teams they can put some runs together. I thought we played with much more purpose offensively; they’re a difficult team to defend, but we just feel at some point and time, we’re going to make some shots. All teams go through shooting slumps, but when you do, you just have to survive and realize that you can win some games when you’re not shooting as well as you want to. When you’re not shooting well, you can’t foul 3-point shooters, you can’t miss layups or dunks, and you can’t give them easy baskets. Other than that, our guys were locked in and in that second half we came out with the mindset to get the ball inside and they did it.
On Keon Johnson’s six made free throws to help put the game away:
“We’ve told them, if you want to be out there at the end of the game, you have to make free throws and to his credit, the last week, he has spent a lot of time shooting free throws. When I walked out of the locker room tonight, we had two guys that didn’t play tonight, head to the gym to improve. That’s the kind of the team we have here. He’s been spending time shooting free throws, working on ball handling and he’s going to have to. I don’t have a problem with him shooting threes but he needs to know when to shoot them. The one he shot tonight, he should have swung it to Josiah, then when Fulkerson passed it to Keon and Keon gave it back. When he walked over to me after that I said that’s the one you need to shoot. People will look at his numbers and say, we’ll let you have all you want right now, Keon and Jaden can both shoot the ball but they will continue to settle in and learn. They have been hurt by what’s gone on this year more than anyone else has. The exciting thing is how good they can be as we continue to move forward.”
On John Fulkerson’s health and why he went with Uros Plavsic over Olivier Nkamhoua in the first half:
“It’s just the way the game went with defense. The reason Uros went in ahead of Olivier tonight is because we were struggling on offense, and when Uros goes in, he is a great connector in terms of moving better offensively and getting the ball moving. Then, I took him out because of the scouting report mistake. He didn’t do what he needed to do. I have a lot of confidence in Olivier, he’s going to continue to work, he’s young to the game, but tonight these guys defensively were the best choice. We felt like we could guard them better with a smaller lineup and that was evident when we slid Josiah to the four when Yves or Fulkerson wasn’t in the game.