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Everything Desmond Oliver said about Vols’ matchup with Vanderbilt

Vols assistant coach Desmond Oliver met with the media on Thursday morning to preview Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt inside of Thompson-Boling Arena.

Oliver discussed the benefits of not playing a mid-week game this week, the problems Vanderbilt presents, Commodores guard Scotty Pippen Jr., the progression of Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, playing zone defense and much more.

Here’s everything Oliver had to say:

On the benefits of Tuesday’s game against Vanderbilt being postponed:

“Well we’ll see on Saturday. You never know if it’s benefitting you until you actually play the game. Certainly, the routine has been to play two games a week and our guys have gotten used to it. We had a great practice on Tuesday, the day of the game. So, I do feel like our guys feel like they’re in a routine because of how hard they played on Tuesday.”

On Vanderbilt:

“The one thing that stands out when you’re watching video on Vanderbilt is the volume of sets that they’re able to run and able to run effectively. To run 25 sets in a game and have the set look like you practiced it for several weeks is really hard to do at this level especially and they do a pretty good job of it. They execute, they have a lot of different things that are tricky to guard. When you’re watching their offensive flow, I’ve been really impressed with how cerebral their players must be to recognize what they’re doing and to do it at a high level, and how effective what they do is to get shots for their top two players.”

On the progress freshmen guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer have made since the start of the season:

“Well, like any freshman, there’s going to be progress because the reality is — especially in a year where there’s COVID like there was over the summer and our guys weren’t out there full-time — they just don’t know anything coming in at the college level. They know high school basketball and they know AAU basketball, but they don’t know Tennessee. So, the time it’s taken to get used to how hard we play, our culture, our work ethic and when your body is beat up, you’re tired, and yet the veterans are back in the gym and getting up more shots and more lifts in and you feel a little bit left behind. So, I think just the routine of college basketball in general has kind of helped those guys along the way. What you’re seeing is their minds and their bodies getting used to it and it’s starting to show itself on the court with their productivity as far as how well they’re playing. I’m just excited because if they’re playing as well as they’re playing right now, just imagine how good those guys are going to look a week or two or a month or two as far as the level of feel and IQ as far as what we’re trying to accomplish on the court.”

On if Tennessee attempted to find a replacement for the Vanderbilt game that was postponed:

“I haven’t had any conversation about any mid-week game besides Vanderbilt with anyone on our staff. As far as our players, it was funny, we were sitting in film and it’s my scout so I’m talking about personnel and I had just started talking about Scotty Pippen Jr. and then coach just bursts into the room and said ‘game is off, we’re not going to play,’ and honestly my gut feeling was that he was joking. I thought I was the brunt of his joke, so I was like ‘man, coach just got me.’ Then I realized in seconds that he was dead serious and our players were a little bit devastated because at that point, you’re doing a scouting report and they’re prepared to play. And they’ve been through this before, last year our guys were on the court ready to play and the game got canceled, so they felt the frustration again of another postponed game. So, we had to talk about, ‘hey guys, this is going to happen, right now we’re fighting through adversity with this COVID year, be happy we’re playing, trust the process and we’ll get back to it here in a couple of days.”

On his and Rick Barnes’ thoughts on playing zone defense:

“I don’t think coach (Barnes) hates zone at all, if you follow coach’s career way back years ago, he’ll always sprinkle zone in when necessary. I do believe this, I believe that coach feels like our standard at Tennessee has always been that we’re the hardest playing team in the country and it’s hard to have zone defense represent that because you’re kind of stationary and staying in the same spots, so he’s kind of reluctant to go zone. We have a zone, we do practice zone, but I think coach loves having the warrior mentality of our guys are going to compete, we’re going to fight and get through screens and guard the ball hard and sometimes play full court and half court. So, zone is in our program, but you haven’t seen it yet. So just be patient and at some point in time we’ll show you some zone maybe sometime in March.”

On Tennessee’s guards matching up with Scotty Pippen Jr.:

“We haven’t talked too much about the matchup between Scotty and our guys, it’s been more about us, Tennessee, getting better. Every time we play a game and we walk off the court victorious or not victorious, we always talk about the Tennessee standard. No matter who we’re playing, whether it be USC Upstate or App State or Vanderbilt, our whole process is that they’re the next team that we have to play, but it’s about us improving and getting better. It just so happens that they have a player in Scotty Pippen Jr. who has a 35 percent usage rate, which is second in the country, who takes 34 percent of their team’s shots. So clearly, someone is going to have to step up and take that challenge, or maybe a collective amount of people have to do it, three or four guys have to step up and do it. But it’s been more about us and getting better, getting better on offense, taking care of the ball better. I feel like our defense is on point, it’s more about our offense taking the right shots, taking care of the basketball and having that energy, more so that is about any matchup in my opinion.”

On sophomore guard Santiago Vescovi’s improvement this season:

“Well, first of all physically when he came back in the fall, it looked like he had been eating right and even during COVID he was getting in the gym and working. His body looks more chiseled and prepared than when he got here a year ago. Anytime you come back in year two, your understanding of the offense and defense is at a higher level, so he was more comfortable. I do think the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team is depth – last year we have to play him 30-plus minutes every night, but this year it’s a stretch to say any of our players have to be out there longer than 28 minutes. So, having someone on the bench who is capable and over your shoulder and knowing another guy can play your position, so all these guys have to adjust to that. We talk about that unit of guards having a chance to be the best five or six guards in the country, and rooting for each other, as well as it never being about me, but wanting the team to do well. Certainly, the one thing we have always needed from Santi is the ability to make shots, and last game he did a great job of getting back to doing what he did last season.”

On how challenging it is for Vescovi to get shots up while also running the team:

“I think it’s a challenge when your team changes and personnel changes. We’ve added three impact players, in VJ, Keon, and Jaden. So, it’s not the same exact group of guys from last year, and we’re running different sets. Trying to figure out where your guys will get shots in the offense does take some time. To his credit he is a very patient young man, and has a super high basketball IQ, and he’s all about winning. You want to have teams like ours that continually get better, and not a team that comes out day one and we’re world beaters, but then see us plateau and all of the sudden we get worse down the stretch.”

On trying to figure out rotations this late in the season:

“The reality is, if those freshmen had the opportunity over the summer to train, be here earlier, and get in shape, our rotation now has the chance to shape itself as early as July. The one thing I love about Coach is he’s fair, and we’re not going to put someone in the lineup just because of whatever star status he has, but he gives it to the veteran guys who earned it, and quite frankly those guys earned it early on. These freshmen are just coming on like world beaters. When Lamonte Turner won sixth man of the year, he was really down at times early on that he wasn’t starting – I told him we have six starters – we have to look at it like that, but not so much looking at the starting five. They can be ending the game for us, and also playing 35 minutes a night and the same can be said with the freshman. We got seven starters on our roster, and our guys shouldn’t get caught up on who starts the game, but focusing on when they are in there and getting wins.”

On if he likes where the team is when it comes to rebounding:

“You can always get better at rebounding by shutting teams out and grabbing every board there is. You strive for every possession – can we win every single possession – we aren’t there yet. We’re not the biggest team in the country – we have really good size in our backcourt, but our frontline with Fulky and Yves would be considered an undersized front line. We talk about gang rebounding on defense, which is where all five guys can come together and act as one, but also blocking out and pursuing the basketball. On offense, it’s just having the pulse where the opposing team knows we’re coming. Based on numbers, what happens is you have a fair share that’ll fall in your favor.

On how he feels Tennessee is running its half-court offense:

“We’re getting better and improving. If we like it, it depends on the time of the game we’re talking about, and you strive to be perfect, but this game is an imperfect game. What team feels like they are executing at 100% level every time they play – you strive for it and you know you’re not going to get there. When a team can shoot 50% from the field and that can be considered a good shooting night, it shows you how imperfect this game is. We’re striving to get better – we’re young and have young guards – our turnover ratio was way higher a month ago than what it is right now.  I would venture to say in another month it’ll go down and our assists will go way up, so we are trending in the right direction.”

On the play of junior guard Victor Bailey Jr.:

“I think he’s doing his job at a high level. He’s leading our team in scoring. Sometimes you have to have guys that all they do is rebound. You want those guys to get better in other areas, but you say, ‘I can pencil in eight rebound for this guy.’ For a guy like Victor, no matter what’s going on offensively, if he’s in the game long enough and he gets enough looks at the basket, the ball’s going to go in the basket. I don’t think there was any rust. When you’re a veteran player and you’re someone who’s been in college for more than a year or two, the expectation is – like any veteran pro – is that you understand the process of what it is to keep your mind and your body right. Victor is a guy that we knew would come in day one and find his niche, find his role. I think he has. Certainly, there are some areas that he has to get better in. Sometimes, guys that can score like he can score, that consumes you. Nothing’s more fun than watching the ball go in the basket. The next phase for him is becoming a much better defender and being someone that we can count on late in games to make those defensive reads and get those defensive stops.”

On how freshman Corey Walker is progressing:

“The great thing about this game, and my kids both play. I have two boys that play and we talk about this routinely. I love it because the reality is, when people want to come hire their guys after their careers are over with, you hope that it’s all about the fact that they’ve been a part of a team, they’ve learned a role and they’ve dealt with adversity. Now you’ve got a guy in your program who can help build from the ground up because he’s dealt with failure and that’s not going to shake him. Corey has dealt with a lot. Corey has missed some time because of COVID. Corey has come in and had to change his body. He’s still going through that process. He’s been injured. I think he broke his toe several weeks ago. The reality is that he is at the bottom of our depth chart and he’s got to work his way into the rotation. That’s on Corey. That’s on him to see how many times Corey can get in the gym and work on his jump shot. Can he get his weight where it needs to be where now he’s one of the fastest guys at that position? I love that, because in the past, we’ve had guys who have done that. Admiral Schofield was in that position before and he attacked it. He found a way to become one of our best. So, if Corey is the guy that we think he is and the guy that we recruited – I do think he’s that guy – he’ll put the time in and he’ll work his butt off. You’ll see improvement if you’re at practice and hopefully that leads to getting on the floor in games and helping us some in games. The good thing about Coach (Barnes) is this, no matter where you are on the depth chart, if we’re playing in a game and we’re struggling and he looks to the bench and can see that a Drew Pember, Corey Walker, Uroš (Plavšic) or Olivier (Nkamhoua) can give us a five-minute window of success – he has no fear in giving those guys a chance.”

On if a game could be added for Saturday if Vanderbilt is postponed once again:

“My mindset has been on Vanderbilt. As a guy that’s doing that scout, I really want to play the game because one, you’re trying to organize your season based on your scouts and I don’t want to have to go three in a row by having to cancel these games. Our players are thinking about Vanderbilt. They’re prepared for them. I’m sure Vanderbilt’s thinking about Tennessee. They’ve prepared for us. Knock on wood that we’ll get a chance to go out there and do it in a couple of days.”

On if there are similarities in how Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse used former guard Saben Lee and how he is utilizing Pippen Jr. this season:

“I don’t think so, after watching the video from last year. I’m not in their locker room and I don’t know what conversations they have or what they’re talking about. Watching the video, I felt like there was a struggle with Saben. Any time you come in and take over a program as a coach, the one thing you’re fighting from day one is buy-in and culture. A lot of times, you feel a lot more comfortable when you can bring in your own guy or guys because you know during the recruiting process, you’ve discussed what your culture is going to be like, as opposed to having to resell a different culture to guys that have been there before. I feel like the buy-in that Scotty Pippen Jr. has towards Stackhouse is different. They recruited Scotty. I’m sure Scotty’s dad and Stackhouse are probably good friends. There’s a level of trust there that I didn’t see with Saben – even though I think Saben is the better talent. Saben Lee is a problem. He’s very, very talented, but that mental mindset and being comfortable enough with your head coach at that position is so valuable, even though Saben was a scouting report guy that we feared, and so is Scotty, I just think that Scotty’s success is primarily due to their team being different. They have fewer veteran guys that can get the job done than maybe Saben had the first couple of years, and then Scotty’s team. Scotty does everything for them. I’m sure that is not to Stackhouse’s liking. I’m sure he would like to see other guys step up or get a veteran guy or two to take the load off of Scotty’s hands.”

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