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Everything Mike Schwartz said about No. 9 Vols’ trip to Texas A&M

Vols assistant basketball coach Mike Schwartz met with the media on Friday morning to preview this weekend’s trip to College Station to take on Texas A&M. Tipoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Schwartz discussed the play of Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi, Jaden Springer’s ankle injury, the defensive performance against Alabama and Arkansas, Saturday’s game against the Aggies and much more.

Here’s everything Schwartz had to say:

On the defensive breakdowns against Alabama and Arkansas to begin conference play:

“We came in knowing that these two teams (Alabama and Arkansas), a little bit like Saint Joe’s was, really wanted to play either behind the 3-point line or right at the rim – not as much midrange and not as much post. Most of the teams we’ve played haven’t been exactly that. It all starts with guarding the ball. We haven’t done a great job over the last two games guarding the ball. Give them credit. They were able to get to the paint. As you really start to be concerned with that 3-point line, what happens is that the defense starts spreading out. Our defense, as much as we want to pressure the ball and do that, is predicated on guys helping and five guys moving as one. What’s happened over the last two games, as we’ve broken it down on film and talked to the guys about it, is we’ve gotten into this ‘You’re on an island’ mentality. You guard your guy. I’ve got to make sure my guy doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do. We stopped helping each other and moving cohesively a little bit over the last two games. But again, two really talented teams, good offensive teams – Arkansas and Alabama. They were able to get to the paint. Once they start getting into the paint and getting us into rotations, we’ve talked about that a lot, they were able to shoot the ball from behind the arc much better than teams have up to that point.”

On freshman guard Jaden Springer’s basketball IQ:

“Coming in, people were probably questioning, ‘What kind of shooter is Jaden Springer? Is he a great three-point shooter?’ This would be the ultimate telltale sign of someone who has a really high IQ. He’s  leading our team in 3-point percentage because he takes great shots. One of the hardest things for any freshman, and sometimes any aggressive basketball player particularly on offense, is to understand shot selection. If you look at the shots that Jaden Springer takes as a freshman, he takes his time, he’s got rhythm and tempo when he shoots the ball from beyond the arc. He knows how to get where he wants in the paint. He’s developed a really physical driving game. He almost plays the guard like a post player. He knows where he wants to get on the floor. He uses his shot in the midrange. But the biggest things I would say is that his shot selection from beyond the arc has allowed him to shoot such a high percentage. That’s really impressive for a freshman, especially when you consider that people were questioning what kind of three-point shooter he really is. He’s proven it, but a lot of that is because of his shot selection.”

On the status of Tennessee’s game against South Carolina on Tuesday as a result of COVID issues within the Gamecocks’ program:

“I don’t know. I don’t have an idea about Tuesday yet. As far as what that would entail next week, meaning Tuesday, I think that’s more up to the conference in terms of what they would do. That’s just a wait and see. Right now, obviously you just hope that everybody is good at South Carolina. That’s most important. You feel for them in terms of some of the situations they’ve had – the shutdowns they’ve had. They had a really difficult December. They played fantastic the other night. You could see the excitement of their players in their game versus Texas A&M. It’s a wait and see and we’ve got all hands-on-deck for A&M tomorrow.”

On freshman guard Keon Johnson shooting 6-of-6 from the free throw line with the game on the line against Arkansas:

“It says a lot. That’s something that Coach (Barnes) has been on him about, whether it’s shooting the ball from behind the arc or free-throws. Here’s what it also says – he’s spent a lot of time in the gym. All of our guys do, but he really has. He’s dedicated himself and he understands. Sometimes the hardest thing in getting better is when you can’t look in the mirror and say, ‘I need to be better here.’ That says a lot about Keon from a maturity standpoint. He knows that he needs to become a better shooter, a better free throw shooter. He’s such a dynamic driver. He gets fouled a lot. That was really impressive the way he closed out that game. He wanted the ball and he wanted to be at the free throw line. That’s a great momentum builder for him. Really, it says that he’s been putting the work in and he understand where he wants to be better. He’s very coachable in that standpoint.”

On how important steals and blocks are to Tennessee’s defense:

“It’s really important. We talked about it. We felt like, defensively, Arkansas may have been the worst we’ve played all season. Probably, that side of the ball was what helped us win the game. On offense, our guys are making shots, making plays and making free throws. That’s why in the end, we were able to come out with the victory. But from a defensive standpoint, you’ve heard us allude to it all of the time. Coach Barnes talks about it – ‘fix it’ plays. In that game, those statistics – forcing 20 turnovers, nine blocks and 10 steals – that was the difference on the defensive side. That was the one area defensively that we were able to execute and do what we feel like we should be attempting to do every night. We also had 29 deflections in that game, which is a statistic that we actively track and really put a lot of emphasis on. The ‘fix it’ plays, the plays where guys were making up deficits, making up areas where we really didn’t do our job schematically, those plays were really big for us and really was the only highlight of our defense that night.”

On sophomore guard Santiago Vescovi’s play to start conference play:

“You’ve got to think that Santi’s really one year into his career. He is really in the beginning, because obviously he only got half of a season last year. This is his second round in conference. He’s basically one-year in. The message has been this. As we get into conference play – and we’ve talked to the whole team about this and that it’s not just Santiago that’s going to deal with this – scouting goes to a whole new level. These players, these coaches, they know what we’re trying to do on offense they know what we’re trying to do on defense. We know what they’re trying to do on offense. We know what they’re trying to do on defense. You really have to understand that. That’s a big deal. Now, this is the second time, third time around that teams have played against Santiago. They’ve watched film on him from the preseason. They’re doing things like trying to keep him on his right hand. They understand what a dynamic shooter he is. They understand the areas where they can maybe make it a little bit more difficult for him. It’s no different for any player, but for Santiago it’s to stay in the gym, continue to work on your right hand, continue to work on being a dynamic shooter and understand that teams are going to try and expose all of our weaknesses. It doesn’t mater if it’s individually or team. Back to the question about Keon, he’s able to look in the mirror and say, ‘I know I need to be better here. Teams are going to pressure me. Teams are going to sit on my left hand and not let me get to it.’ That’s it. It’s nothing to be concerned about but it’s something that you have to hit head on and he’s working at it every day. He’ll improve. He’ll continue to improve and he’ll get back in rhythm in terms of that. It’s normal what he’s going through.”

On the difference on the sideline this year due to COVID protocols:

“The first two things that come to mind is, number one, the masks. Obviously, communication during a game is paramount – between the bench and from the bench to the court. The masks make that a little bit of a challenge. You’re trying to do the right thing and I think our staff pays attention to it. We don’t want to be pulling our masks down. You’re trying to communicate with the masks and, believe it or not, sometimes you’re talking to guys in the huddle and you’re talking at a fairly normal voice and they can’t hear, but they also can’t read your lips. That’s probably the first thing that I’ve thought of. Watching film, talking to each other in high-intensity environments, reading lips and things like that become a big deal. You just know facial expressions, whether a guy gets it or not. The masks sometimes make it a little bit hard for the players, as well as us communicating with them while they’re on the court. Number two would be for the coaches to talk to each other, the space is OK. No big deal. We can get up and move around. The other day, I remember during the game I wanted to go down and talk to one of our guys and it felt different. You got up, leave the action, go down to the end of the bench or you go to the stanchion where the stands are and you’re talking to the guys there. That’s a little different. It’s what it is and we’re fortunate to be playing. Probably the communication aspect with the masks is the biggest challenge, but it’s nothing big.”

On when the coaching staff began to see sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James emerge as the voice of the team:

“You started to see it some last year when he first arrived on campus. I think that’s a confidence he has about himself and he’s a team first player. He was always deflecting to other guys. He was always, in terms of anything that was coming his way credit wise or anything that he was doing well, it was always deflected off to his teammates. He did that as a freshman. He did that in high school. He’s always been that guy. He’s always been something with that pass first mentality. You earn a lot of kudos with your players when you’re like that. The guys know that he’s not out there thinking, ‘Score, score, score.’ It’s to the point where Coach Barnes, our staff and his own teammates are telling him, ‘Jo, you need to think about scoring more. We need you to do it. It makes us better.’ That’s one thing. The other thing, which is the biggest thing and we’ve talked about it as a team, is when we go in the film room and we go in areas where we’re on the court and it’s getting intense, or Coach is getting on guys and we as a staff are getting on guys, whether it’s on the court or in the film room, Josiah unequivocally always takes it on himself. ‘That was me, Coach. I should have done that.’ We know that sometimes it’s not him, but he’s got this element of really looking around and knowing who might be a little bit down, who might be struggling physically or mentally in the film room. They may be going through it and he finds a way to put it on himself. That’s a very strong quality. Grant Williams did it at a very high level when he was here. Coach Barnes has had great players in the past do it. T.J. Ford did it for him. When we were at Texas, he was like that. It’s really a confidence thing and an ability to help your teammates. If the guys know one thing about Josiah, it’s that he is all about his teammates.”

On Saturday’s game against Texas A&M:

“It’s going to be a game that’s going to be determined in the paint. That’s probably the best way to say it. They want to keep teams out of the paint and they’re a very good rebounding team. We want to get to the paint and we want to be a great rebounding team. If you look at last year’s game, they shot just over 30 percent from the floor and they beat us 63-58 and we shot in the 40 percent range, maybe in the mid-40’s. But, it all came down to one thing. They had 23 offensive rebounds that night. It’s going to be an extremely physical and hard-nosed game. They’re a great and well-coached team that puts a huge emphasis on playing hard, playing physical, rebounding and they absolutely came into our building last year and got the better of us in all of those areas and that’s why they won.”

On Josiah-Jordan James’ house being damaged in a fire on New Year’s Eve and what it says about him to be able to play through it:

“He’s a really high character kid in terms of who he is as a person. The stuff we were just talking about with him really speaks to his mental toughness that he can handle it. You all know that there is going to be a high expectation on the court and in the film room here from coach Barnes and sometimes guys get it good. For him to take that on and take more of it, because he has it as hard as anybody in terms of expectations and the standard is for him. So, for him to be able to deal with something personal like that and to continue doing what he’s doing, it absolutely says a lot about him and his family. His family didn’t tell him right away. They wanted him to get through a couple of games and once we got through the Alabama game, he found out and it was difficult. It says a lot about him and Josiah has done a really good job of asking, ‘How can I help other guys.’ This would definitely be a time where he could put himself first and he hasn’t alluded to it at all. He has continued to try to help the young guys. He helps the guys on the court with what we’re trying to execute, because he really understands what we’re trying to do on both sides of the ball. He also understands the intangibles when guys may be struggling emotionally or mentally, he tries to help them there too, while also going through something like was alluded to. So, it says volumes about him.”

On if the coaching staff always have confidence in Santiago Vescovi at the free-throw line regardless of how he is shooting from the field:

“Absolutely. 100 percent. It goes back to what we talked about with what he’s going through. Teams are going to try to focus in on areas where they can make it difficult for him. It’s no different than what we’re going to try to do to Texas A&M players. Texas A&M is going to try to do it to him and our whole team. This is what sports is, this time of year. This is what college basketball is, in terms of conference scouting. From a stand point of who Santiago is, the confidence we have in him, his ability to make the right play, make big plays, make big shots and make the right decisions or in your example, make free-throws, we absolutely have confidence in him and we were glad he was at the line.”

On SEC teams winning 50 percent of games on the road so far this season:

“You can never underestimate what a home crowd is. We have the best one in the country and when Thompson-Boling is going like it is, and like it would be this season, there’s no better place to be playing. You can’t even come close to trying to fathom the impact that no crowd is. Momentum is such a big thing in sports and it takes such a short span to change momentum and our crowd at Thompson-Boling has won us many games because of that. It’s just not there this year and I think there’s a lot of great venues and fan bases in the SEC. It’s the best conference in the country in terms of fan bases and passion, so I believe that is the exact reason why teams are winning so many games on the road.”

On if Tennessee is becoming too reliant on ‘fix-it’ plays:

“I don’t know if you worry about them becoming complacent, but you can get over confident in those plays. You can sometimes in a physical game, or a game where fatigue may be setting in, some of those things can slip, because you know you might have an Yves Pons coming over to impact a shot at the rim. So, maybe instead of your first three steps in transition being as hard as they need to be, you’re going to react and know you have someone on the back line that’s going to help you. We talk about the fact that we can’t rely on that. We know that, it has to be an element that’s always there, with the front line of our defense doing what it needs to do. Over the last two games it hasn’t been there, but I don’t think that’s at all the reason why. I would say, give credit to Arkansas and Alabama number one, number two our rotation over the last two games has been a little shorter and that’s normal. We’re in conference play now. In the Missouri game we were able to win with a bit of a cushion and now you get into your first real possession game of the year against Alabama and your rotation shrinks a little bit. This is normal and it will build back up, but our depth has not been a very big factor over the last two games. That goes back to the first point. Up until the last two games, we’ve been a really physical team. We’ve lost a bit of our physicality over the last few games, but I’m going to continue to give credit to Alabama and Arkansas. They both play a five-out game, they space the floor and they make it a bit more difficult to be physical. They don’t always have someone in the paint area. They have the floor spaced out so when its like that, there’s going to be less of a physicality to our game. They did a great job, we were fortunate that we were able to win the Arkansas game, but we do want to get back to being a physical defensive team and our rotation and depth is a big piece of that and we haven’t had that quite as much the last two games. So, I would think that would be the reason why more than anything, not really any complacency on what our schemes or anything like that are.”

On how Jaden Springer’s ankle is:

“You know the saying of, ‘I don’t know who is 100 percent, coaches or players.’ He’s fine. We have not been back on the court, but there’s an expectation that he will be a full go today at practice when we’re done here.”

On if junior guard Victor Bailey Jr. does a job of ‘hunting’ for his shot:

“Probably, because he’s a really offensive minded and aggressive player. We love that. You’re always searching for the perfect balance. You’re always searching for someone who’s really aggressive, but knows exactly when to pass and when it’s not a good shot, but I’m not sure that exists. We want Josiah to be more aggressive and he over passes. We show VJ some cases where he could have passed it. But at the end of the day in an athletic and fast paced league like the SEC, Victor Bailey is someone that could easily be the type of player we’re playing against at Arkansas or Alabama. One that really puts a lot of fear in your defense, because he is so aggressive, he shoots the ball well, he drives the ball well and he attacks the basket. He is a prototypical, dynamic and offensive SEC guard. I think as coaches and coach Barnes will be the first to say that during a game or in film that you could have done this, or could have done that, but his errors might side on the area of aggression and other players may side on the area of being more conservative. There’s nothing wrong with that, because that’s VJ Bailey. He’s a scorer, he’s an offensive player who knows he has to be better on defense. He wants to understand shot selection a little bit better. He wants to understand when he can create for his teammates a little bit better, because he has that ability, but he’s learning that. I don’t know if I want to say ‘hunt’ his shot, but he’s an offensive player who’s wired to score and that’s not a bad thing at all.”

On if the coaching staff wants the post players to be wired to score:

“I think John Fulkerson is. I think John Fulkerson is wired to score. He gets that ball and he knows what he wants to do when he gets it. It’s a different game for post players. Post players really have to depend on guards getting them the ball, or being in a position in a much smaller area of space to go to work. I think John is. I think Yves is developing his game and his niche with what he does in the post. I don’t think we’re worried at all about E.J., Olivier or Uros thinking that way, because we need them to do other things to get themselves on the court, which they are very capable of doing. When they have the opportunities to score, we want them to take advantage of finishing and taking shots they are capable of making that come within the offense. But, we don’t need a bunch of guys being wired to score.”

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