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Everything Desmond Oliver said about Vols’ game at Kentucky

Vols assistant basketball coach Desmond Oliver met with the media on Thursday morning to discuss Saturday night’s rivalry game between No. 11 Tennessee and Kentucky on ESPN.

Oliver discussed how Tennessee can improve its transition offense, the biggest takeaway from the Ole Miss game after watching the film, getting Josiah-Jordan James to be more aggressive, what stands about Kentucky and much more. Here’s everything Oliver had to say about the latest tilt between the Vols and Wildcats:

On Tennessee not scoring any transition points over the last two games:

“We have to run more. That’s something we’ve been talking about. Personally, every time I’ve done the scouting, I’ve talked about it. I know Coach English has talked about it. Coach Schwartz and Coach Barnes — is that we’ve urged our guys to run more, pass ahead and there’s no reason why from game to game we shouldn’t be able to get 15 or 20 points in transition. We talk about the difference of three to four baskets more per half to do that. I think that’s certainly an emphasis. It is something we must work on and get better at. It starts today in practice by making sure our guys get the message, because now instead of averaging 65 points a game, if you add 15 more points toward where we are around 80 points a game. If we are in the 80s, no one’s going to beat us. We are losing close games a lot of times because our offense is stalled, and I think that’s the difference between us really having a chance to be a special team as opposed to just being a good team.”

On biggest takeaway watching the film against Ole Miss:

“My biggest takeaway — and I plan on sitting out after this zoom and spending time with some of the guys individually, especially our guards — was I was very surprised that at this level that our guards from a mental standpoint allowed an opposing team to take their aggressiveness away and not see the court. It’s like in football when quarterbacks are blitzed by the defense that this guy’s wide open that can make plays and because it’s happening so fast and you’re on your heels and then you put this pressure on yourselves that simple plays aren’t so simple.

“Watching the video — I mean that one-v-one was not as tough as it seemed for those guys. We had guys diagonal skip pass, lobs, Yves Pons is on the weak side against a 6’1 guard who can’t jump high enough to touch his chest, let’s play above the rim, and our guards didn’t throw it. Sometimes when the play doesn’t work, you have to put your head down and drive a gap and get by people off the dribble and go make a play at this level. So, that’s what surprised me most. Our inability mentally to just be aggressive and attack the basket. I thought Keon Johnson got going late in the game and just put his head down and made plays. We need more guys against gimmick defenses like that to just go make a play at this level.”

On what Tennessee needs to do to be more effective in transition:

“First and foremost, in order to run effectively we have to continue to get stops and first-time rebounds. For the most part we’ve been doing that against most of our opponents. Then the next part of it is running. It’s our first big down, we call it running the pipe. Then our wings have to run and then the guard that gets the rebound either has to advance it off the pass or if the defense is matching up and guarding those guys, advance it off the dribble with the intent to score. The intent can’t be to run the court hard, run it fast and then we will run a play. I think right now, we look like a team that wants to go run to play every time. I know for a fact that’s not what Coach Barnes wants. We are disciplined enough to be a team that executes at a high level, but he wants to go out there and get easy baskets. It just comes down to our guys mentally buying into that, being more comfortable doing it, and being more aggressive to make those plays happen.”

On the importance of rebounding:

“I think a lot of it comes down to our personnel. Against Kansas, for the most part, John Fulkerson was really good in that game. So, our frontline wasn’t compromised by going small.  John played close to 30 minutes. Yves Pons played pretty good minutes. So, when John and Yves are in the game and now, we have Josiah Jordan-James, our big guards, Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer in the game — even Santiago Vescovi and Victor Bailey in the game — we have enough size on the perimeter in a normal frontline to be a pretty challenging opponent on the glass. When we go small ball, the reality is our best players, our best offensive players, might end up being our guards. Playing small ball may help us on offense, but our guards aren’t the same physical, athletic rebounders that may be John Fulkerson or Yves Pons are; especially on the defensive glass. I think that the discrepancy is when our offense is failing and when we are trying to put our five best and most skilled guys in the game. Maybe it helps our offense but we haven’t really figured out how to get those guys to rebound at a high level.”

On the ongoing conversation with Josiah-Jordan James to be more aggressive:

“It’s funny — certainly Josiah is a good player, a really good player, a really good defender, has got great size, and he’ll play in the NBA one day and be a really good role player in the NBA for sure. However, our biggest challenge with Josiah has been trying to ignite that fire to score because he can. He’s a tremendous three-point shooter, he’s got a good pull up game when he uses it, and he can get to the glass and go rebound offensively. It’s trying to allow him to understand that it’s his role on our team to take and make those open shots, and not turn down a shot with 17 or 13 on the shot clock. He turns down an open skip three, to pass it one more time, and now we’re shooting the ball with two seconds left, and that shot is contested vs taking the open shot. So really, it’s a mindset. He’s been a player his entire life that has been a pass first, assist oriented, ball handling point guard in high school, but for us he’s been playing off the ball more, and we are asking to do something he hasn’t done early in his career, but he is good at it.

“So, we’re still trying to figure out our roles. Sometimes when you have talent, you get anointed in the preseason as this great team. We have great players, and we have a really good staff that is going to coach our guys at a high level, but great teams are great because they play together, they’ve developed, and they’ve earned that. We had a solid group that returned from last year. We have two big time freshman that came in with some hype. We had a really good transfer that came in with some hype. All of the sudden we are supposed to be this great team coming in day one, but we’re working at that, and it’s a work in progress. I still think we’re really good, can beat anybody in the country, but we have proven if we aren’t locked in as one and playing the right way, we can lose to anybody in the country as well.”

On Keon Johnson being aggressive at the end of the Ole Miss game:

“Well, certainly if we can get our transition game going, and get our guys to buy in to playing harder, faster, and getting off the ball by passing ahead and balling ahead, it’s going to help those two. Keon is maybe the most athletic guard in the country, and certainly one of the top four or five best athletes in the country. So, him attacking the rim is always going to be a good thing for Tennessee.

“The reality is, that one-three-one zone and that two-three zone slowed us down some, and made our guys overthink it. He was the only guy that had enough confidence it seemed to go one against two, be shifty off the dribble, and go create and attack the goal. We clearly have enough guys that can do it. Santi can get it done at a high level. VJ Bailey can get it done, as well as Josiah, and Springer, but it’s a matter of doing it. Again, it’s a young group of guys. A sophomore in Santiago that’s playing his first full season, and Jaden’s a freshman, so it’s a learning process with a team that has played together for the first time this year. I think we are going to start the peak very soon, but it starts with getting these guys to run and be more aggressive on offense. It’s taking the shots that defenses are giving to us, and really being aggressive.”

On facing a Kentucky team that is struggling this season:

“Well, Kentucky is Kentucky. Despite their record, they still probably have the most talented roster in the SEC. Certainly one or two — I’m going to say them and Florida. They’re still Kentucky. No one is going in there thinking that because of their record or whatever that they’re not a team that can go out there and blow you out and beat you pretty badly. I like the matchup because the reality is, it’s more of a normal matchup for us, in the sense of we’re not playing against a small ball team. I think several teams that we’ve played against this year end up playing four guards and now you’re in a position where, do you play your normal lineup and play Fulky and Yves, because they’re guarding a smaller guy, or go small ball? Kentucky historically has always had two front-line guys that have great size, so I think it’ll be a typical Tennessee-Kentucky slugfest with two big front lines going at it.

“And, really, I’m looking for John Fulkerson, who is our veteran leader. John, the last 10-to-12 games of the season last year in the SEC, in my opinion, was one of the top two or three best players in the conference. And sometimes, when you come back the following year—and again, everyone is putting you in the Grant Williams category, you’re on the Wooden list, the all-American preseason list, player of the year list in the conference—and you go from being the third or fourth option to being the number one option, and mentally it takes its toll when your team struggles some and when your numbers don’t indicate that you’re that guy. We’re trying to get John to understand that being that guy doesn’t constitute putting up big numbers, it just means you’re the same hard — playing, blue collar, athletic, skilled Fulky that we’ve always known, and just be aggressive. I do feel like pressure — a lot of what you’re seeing with these young people struggling and having bad moments against press is because of pressure. It’s the pressure to live up to being the best team in school history, and we’re not, we haven’t earned that, we haven’t proven that. So, we’re trying to get these guys to be hungry like our team was in 2017-18. We were picked thirteenth in the conference, and they had a chip on their shoulder. We’re trying to build that chip despite being nationally ranked. I think we will.”

On what stands out about Kentucky:

“So, it’s not my scouting, I haven’t watched a ton of them, but I watched their game last night. The thing that jumps out to me is that they’re desperate. Like Tennessee right now, they’re desperate for a win. So, we’re going to get the best version of Kentucky, and secondly, is that they’re talented. They’ve got guys that are going to play in the NBA who are just young right now and trying to figure their way out in terms of how to play and how to win games, but they’re dangerous. They’ve got great size — if and when they put it all together, they’re going to be very tough to beat for a lot of people. It’s our job on Saturday to go in there and try to keep the pressure on and get better and find a way to win that basketball game.”

On why sophomore forward Olivier Nkamhoua didn’t play in the second half against Ole Miss after playing in the first half:

“Well, we felt like, and sometimes it’s just a feel with players, when (Luis) Rodriguez had the run-out dunk and he dunked on Olivier in transition, his body language, we just felt like he didn’t respond the way that we wanted to see him respond. So, in the second half, we knew the game might come down to a one possession game, and we’re saying again, do you rely on your young guys? And our young guys were in the backcourt and kind of struggling a little bit, or do you give a guy like E.J Anosike a chance, who is a veteran, who has played in big games, and put up big numbers in big games. Do you give your veteran a chance to bring some physical toughness, some rebounding? Again, we were getting beat on the glass by a bunch. So, E.J is by far the best and most consistent rebounder that we have on our basketball team, day in and day out in practice. He’s lost some playing time because of his offense, and he’s missed layups that he’s got to make at this level, where Olivier makes those layups. At that point, it came down to rebounding, that veteran post player presence that we had to get, and just trying to search for answers.”

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