Vols head basketball coach Rick Barnes met with the media on Monday afternoon to preview Tuesday night’s matchup against Mississippi State. Tipoff inside of Thompson-Boling Arena is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.
Barnes previewed the challenges the Bulldogs will present, updated the health of Santiago Vescovi and Jaden Springer, discussed his biggest takeaway from the Missouri game, who speaks up on the team, Davonte Gaines’ increased role and much more.
Here’s everything Barnes had to say:
On his biggest takeaway from the Missouri game after watching the film:
“I thought our guards did not do a great job of what we wanted defensively, but I don’t want to take anything away from Missouri because I thought their guards were terrific. They made shots, drove the ball well and made some great layups. I love big-time layup makers and they made a couple of great ones. (Xavier) Pinson was terrific. He played as well against us as anybody we’ve played all year. I thought on the offensive end—and this is my fault—we settled for getting into ball screens way too much. That’s not who we are and what we want to do. I did like the fact that we got aggressive shooting the ball from the 3-point line. We have guys that we know can make shots. The biggest thing is that they need to take shots, so we don’t continue to put pressure on one or two guys to score the ball. The fact is that we’ve got to get back to who I think we should be as a team. That means if we’ve got to keep going into the bench to figure that out, we’re going to have to do it.”
On how valuable freshman guard Jaden Springer is given the fact that Tennessee is 0-3 without him:
“I think he’s valuable in the fact that he can penetrate the defense. He’s another quality guard. He’s a player that, defensively, does guard normally and does the things that we want done. He gives us more depth. There’s no doubt that he helps, but we should be able to overcome that. Santi (Santiago Vescovi) wasn’t at his best the other night, but he struggled through it. He had a little bit of a hip pointer that he was dealing with, but he fought it as much as he could. Other guys made the effort. I also think that when you get a little bit of doubt creep in, I think it can freeze you up mentally and physically. I think that has happened a little bit the last two games. I know this: we’ve got a chance to be a really good basketball team. Teams go through it at different times throughout the year, unless it’s one of those special years where it just clicks from start to finish. We’ve just got to get back to playing the kind of basketball that I know and we know that we’re capable of.”
On the health of sophomore guard Santiago Vescovi and Springer:
“I haven’t got my report today, but I saw Santi leaving last night and he seemed fine. Jaden looked like he was doing better, but we’ll see today. When we finish up here we’ll be heading into practice.”
On the art of blocking shots:
“I think it’s a good thing to be known for. When you get a guy that does that, it’s a talent. It’s someone that wants to do it. It’s a game-changer when you’ve got a guy that can make those ‘fix it’ plays. They do it two different ways. Abdul Ado is long and athletic. Yves is long, but not that long. He’s got tremendous jumping ability and timing. It’s a great thing to have and it’s obviously something that people love to see, when a guy goes up there and can swat something away at the rim when you think you’ve got something easy. Both of them should be commended on the fact that they take great pride in doing it.”
On how important this Saturday’s Big12/SEC challenge is after several non-conference games being cancelled:
“Again, I do not know if it will have bearing on what will happen with the NCAA Tournament. Even though you think that every game you play has a bearing on the NCAA Tournament. Perception wise, I think that there are good teams in both leagues regardless of what happens. I think right now everybody really and honestly is more considerate of what we saw at Michigan today where they are shut down for two weeks. Where the concern is, is every time that you go out, you have to take advantage of it and play. Because who knows how long it will be before that happens somewhere in your program or somewhere else within the league. I think that there will be a lot more discussion as time goes on about postseason tournaments and those types of things. But the fact is, if we can get as many teams as we can to the 20-22 mark of the game total we can probably give the NCAA what they need in some ways. But as you know, some teams had no preseason and are going to play the minimum games of 13. I know what you are asking about the perception of it. I do not know if the NCAA tournament works off perception. I think they, in terms of leagues, I think they look at what they think are quality basketball teams and that is where their decision comes from.”
On if he is more careful with a player after that player has gotten injured twice:
“Yes, you are always careful with your players. You do not ever want your players to play injured as a coach. You can tell when things are not right because you are around them so much. And the number one thing is we are going to protect our players at all costs. If it means them not playing then they are not going to play. Every player is different. You know their pain tolerance and pain level are different, but someone you know that cannot move that needs to be able to move and can’t move, then those are easy decisions they are. We know Jaden wants to play. He is doing everything that we are asking him to do for his rehab. He was out there the other day, and he actually was getting ready to play the game Saturday. And he was on the court a very short time, but you could tell that he tweaked it. And that is frustrating when you have put all that time into rehab, and you want to play, and you go out thinking I am ready to do this, and it is still tender then it is hard. But the number one thing that we are always going to do is protect our players.”
On who speaks up on the team:
“We still believe that John Fulkerson is a guy that can do some things. We all have confidence in Santi to make the right play because he does that. But we also know that Fully has to make the adjustments that he needs to make throughout the game. In terms of how people guardian him so he can do what he needs to do. So, with that said as a team, we are at our best when we have great balance. What we talked about yesterday is we do not want to get into a situation with our team where we do not know from game to game who is going to be consistent. We do not want to have to say okay we are going to have to play the hot hand, this guy is playing well let’s play him. You want consistency because that helps everyone. That helps the guys that are going to come into the game, your front-line guys, your starters. You do want to see consistency out of those guys. And obviously, when you go to the bench you want to see it. But when you do not get consultancy really the game time, and game situation depends on what you might do at that point and time just based on what has happened to that point throughout the game.”
On how he would assess the play of sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James the last few games:
“Well the last game he finally did the things we told him and when he’s open, he’s got to shoot the ball. He turns down too many shots, which inevitably puts us in a situation where normally something good doesn’t happen and where the floor isn’t balanced. Passes are made to guys in tough situations, where they are almost locked up in jail before they know what’s hit them. Last game he did do that – he really had been doing a terrific job on the glass and he has got to get back to doing that more consistently because at one time he was the best rebounder we had on the team. With that said, what we need from them as much as anything is to take open shots and do it consistently. He’ll continue to do all the other stuff he needs to do to continue to grow as a player.”
On how he thought sophomore Davonte Gaines played last week after receiving an increased role:
“What he does is what you see – he is going to play hard, he’s going to go in there and rebound the basketball, and he’s going to do that regardless of his build as he is not afraid to throw himself around to do that. What we’re doing with him is it goes back to consistency. He is a consistent player, and if Jaden is available to play, how much would he play, I really don’t know the answer to that other than the way we played at Florida. I felt like he needed a chance to play because I didn’t think we got the kind of competitive fire that we needed. I thought the other night against Missouri it was better from that standpoint, but he had earned the right based on what he had done in practice and games to go out and do that. I would say the same thing about Drew Pember. You do it in practice and you get a shot in the game, although you had better do the same things to get you on the floor. I’ve said many times there’s a big difference in being a guy that can get things done in practice, and the guy that can get things done in the game.”
On how good it was for senior froward Yves Pons to knock down some three’s against Missouri:
“Well I just like the fact that he shot, but he still has to get where he isn’t as hesitant, and he has to shoot his shots. He looked to be a bit more aggressive driving the ball too. I’ve seen many players go through slumps where they can’t seem to make one. You go back a year ago, Jordan Bowden struggled all year and you think about how much time he put in. Does it get mental – there is no doubt and any way you can deny that. The fact is, it goes back to what I said about Josiah James – for the flow of the game and the flow of your team, when you are open, and your teammates are expecting you to shoot the ball, you got to shoot it. Are you going to be open when shooting the low percentage – Coaches are going to say you got to make one and we’re not going to guard them. You saw as the game went on and he made a couple of them, they started to creep out there. So, the fact that for one we know he can make them, and I felt all along that at some point in time he would start making some shots.”
On if Tennessee needs more consistent inside scoring:
“Yes, and it can’t be just John Fulkerson. Inside scoring can be layups – we showed (Victor Bailey Jr.) yesterday as he had two layups at the rim that he really wasn’t challenged on, and he made them much more difficult than he had to. So, it can be posting guards, it can be posting post players, it can be driving the ball and getting to the rim, playing off two feet, and all kinds of ways that you can count inside scoring. So, we don’t need to just think, going to one guy and standing around watching him play in the post is what that’s about. We need everybody. Again, playing to the high percentage areas on the floor that we want to play to.”
On what stands out about Mississippi State:
“Their guards. We just had two guards that lit us up for 28 and 18 points. They have two starting guards that can very well do that. They have a very aggressive player inside in the post, they rebound the ball, they’re a very physical team. Ben Howland’s teams have always been solid both ways, so we think it’ll be a physical tight basketball game, which most of them are, but they really work hard at working high percentage areas, they do it as well as anybody.”
On the importance of having a four-game home stretch:
“That’s the way that schedule works out, you’ll have some back-to-back home games and then you’ll have some back-to-back road games. Regardless of what it is, I do think that this year is different playing at home or on the road. It’s not quite the same as it has been in the past. If there has ever been a year where they’re somewhat equal, I’d say it’s this year because we know some home arenas are great home advantages for teams. Right now, whether we’re home or away it always gets back to having to play solid, good basketball. You have to be consistent, you have to know what you’re going to get from night in and night out from certain guys and you hope you’re as healthy as you can be and if not you hope that someone else can help in and you don’t miss a beat, which is sometimes hard to do. With that said, you can’t turn the ball over 18 times in back-to-back games. You can’t do that. That has nothing to do with. Being at home or on the road because if it had anything to do with that we wouldn’t have turned the ball over 18 times here on Saturday. It goes back to playing good basketball.”
On if it’s concerning that Davonte Gaines and Josiah-Jordan James may be Tennessee’s best rebounders given the fact that they’re not post players:
“I think John Fulkerson is averaging like 12 points, six rebounds. It would be great if he were 12 points, eight rebounds. Yves is averaging about five rebounds. If those two guys were both at eight, that’s where you would want that. You also have to realize, they’re playing night in and night out against guys that were bigger, so their job is to block out and you expect your guards to come in and clean things up. They really do have to block out, and they’re going to have to do it most of the time in tight quarters where sometimes the person that they’re guarding are both standing on the block or inside, shots come from the outside it’s hard for that guy inside to get the leverage that he needs especially when the ball comes off the rim quick. That’s why your guards are so important. So I don’t think it’s unusual if you have good rebounding guards, that’s when you get better, I can tell you that. It is hard for those post guys inside. It’s like the offensive and defensive line, they snap the ball and you have four or five inches and there’s contact. That’s what it’s like for those guys when a shot goes up in there.”
On how accurate the perception is that the SEC isn’t good this season:
“I don’t think that they’re accurate. Again, it goes back to what I was talking earlier about. The NCAA tournament — I don’t think they base anything on perception. I think they look at teams and you watch teams. If you watch Missouri play the other night, I don’t think anybody in the country would say they’re a bad team. I think they would look and say they’re a really good team. They saw them beat a good team, too. Were we at our best? No. Did they have something to do with it? Absolutely. You can’t tell me that there is anybody in the country, the ACC, the Big East, the Pac 12, that would look forward to playing Missouri or Alabama or LSU—you name it. What happens when there’s balance in a league is exactly what you said. The perception is that it’s not very good.
“Like the ACC right now. Duke, where are they in the league? North Carolina? Does that mean the ACC is not any good this year? What happens is as time goes on, if you’ve got a great league, the coaches in the league they’re fighting to get up there. Do you expect Kentucky, Carolina and Duke to be good every year? Absolutely you do. Do you expect Michigan State every year? Absolutely. UCLA? Absolutely, because they’ve done it for a long period of time. I think that’s where we are in college athletics today especially because of this transfer rule. There is going to be a lot of teams that can get good quick. Missouri’s the oldest team in our league, and I thought they played like it. They’re playing like a group of guys that say, ‘Hey we’ve got a chance to go to the NCAA tournament. This is our last go around and we’re going to go get it.’
“Jeremiah Tilmon had one of the great quotes — somebody asked him after one of their losses what can you learn from a loss, and I think he said something like, ‘We’re too old to learn something from a loss. We shouldn’t be losing.’ I think that’s a great quote, because older teams—we don’t need to lose games. That goes back to people thinking you’ve got to lose a game. I do know this. We’re still dealing with kids. Can there be distractions? Can they get caught up in this or that? Absolutely they can, but that’s part of coaching. You have a pulse on your team that you’re making sure someway somehow—we told our team the last two teams that have beaten us, we had beaten four times in a row. I’ve got enough respect for Mike White and enough respect for Cuonzo Martin to know that they’re saying when’s enough, enough? Our guys right now, they weren’t part of all those four wins in a row, but Fulky and those guys were and Yves. Some of these younger guys that’s the first time they’ve played Missouri — first time they’ve played Florida. They don’t feel that yet. The coaches do. Coaches have a lot longer memory than the players. So, coaches are going to bring those types of things up. When we talk about a perception in the middle of January, I think you’re right. Everybody thinks that, but I’ve never believed that. I never have.
“I remember at Texas when we were playing Tennessee years ago and they came in, I knew this getting ready for the game — I had great respect watching Tennessee on tape that day, but I don’t think players think like that. I don’t know if they always have the kind of respect, especially young players should for older players that they’ve never heard of. Sometimes that’s where it does take them getting beat a little to realize there’s a lot of guys that can play this game that I don’t even know about. I don’t think that people that are dealing with basketball and really know the game. I don’t know how you cannot look at Missouri the other night, and Florida, and say those are really good basketball teams. Tennessee, who was supposed to win the game, they didn’t play great, but I could go back and show you the table. We were still in striking distance in the game and could’ve done something with is as bad as we played. You’re never as good a you think you are, and you’re as bad as you think you are.”
On if he thought Tennessee would be more consistent given the amount of experience on the team:
“I think when you talk about that, you have to take into consideration the fact that going into the year, the older guys you’re talking about were thrust into a situation where everyone thinks they’re going to dominate. If you go back to last year, we lost 14 games. We lost 14 games with pretty much the same group of guys. We had John Fulkerson and Yves Pons who played really well at the end of the year and we beat Florida and Kentucky. Florida was a team that was picked to be a top-5 team at the start of the season. So, when you build a bit of momentum like that at the end of the year, you have a majority of the team back and a good recruiting class, I can see from perception that people are going to write that we should be pretty good. That’s why I say every year that preseason rankings don’t mean a whole lot. I know this, I knew that Yves Pons and John Fulkerson would be thrust into a whole different role that would be new for them. It would be a situation where people really are expecting great things from them. If you don’t think they’re feeling that pressure for the first time in their life, then you’re mistaken. They do feel it. They don’t want to let anyone down and these two guys work as hard as you could possibly ask someone to work. Then, you’re going to bring in some guys who have never done it, but think they’re going to come in and it’s going to be easy. It’s never easy, but they don’t any better.
“Again, regardless of the consistency you think you’re going to have, you have to look around. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. I know we’re a much better team than we were a year ago, but I also know that we have guys who put undo pressure on themselves, because they don’t want to let their teammates down. That, in itself is part of the growth process. So, coming into this year, I didn’t think it was going to be smooth sailing. I, like every coach wishes we had those seven games that we missed. We could have gone through it and learned some things, whereas now we’re learning it in conference play. We’re going to keep growing, but I have a lot of confidence in these guys. Those are the things that going into the locker room after games — there’s a lot of dialogue when you go in and scrub out a game that people would not know. This is not being critical of anyone, but it’s just things that you wouldn’t know, unless you live it every day. What happens is, when you set high expectations on each other and things aren’t going well, there’s a lot that can come out, but when things do come out you really realize what your team is made out of. That’s why I love these guys. They want to get better, they know they have to get better and I expect us to get better.”
On how freshman forward Corey Walker Jr. is progressing:
“He’s going ok. Corey missed a lot of basketball at a time where it’s really hard to make up. Because, when you think about it, he missed a lot and now we’re into games—he’s still behind in areas of knowing what we need him to know in terms of our offensive and defensive schemes. It’s also hard to catch up, because we’re only getting one good day of practice, because we’re nursing injuries, fatigue and all of the other things you deal with this time of year. So, when you lose those practices, it’s really, really hard to make it up.”