Vols head coach Rick Barnes met with the media on Monday afternoon to preview Wednesday’s game against South Carolina following Tennessee’s loss to LSU. When Barnes met with the media, the game against the Gamecocks was scheduled for Tuesday night prior to UT finding out it had a positive COVID-19 case in its program.
Barnes discussed what went wrong at LSU, if Olivier Nkamhoua could receive more playing time moving forward, getting John Fulkerson turned around and the play of Jaden Springer. Here’s everything Barnes had to say:
“I thought that we had too many breakdowns defensively. There were some ball screen actions at the start of the game, not getting matched up—which you can’t do that. We gave up a couple of baskets where I think a couple of guys had been out there too long in the second half and didn’t get back to set our defense the way we have to. I think the young guys are trying to do too much—which that’s not their fault necessarily. They’re going to have to understand what’s too much and what’s not enough and get right there in the middle. We knew we would go through a little bit of that when we started playing through the guards more so than the inside—we still need an inside game. We need Yves and John searching for shots, and they’ve had opportunities where they catch it and wait too long. We have some great looks when they were able to stretch the game out. They made some threes, and we had a couple of wide-open looks that we just didn’t make. It just felt like we were fighting uphill all game long because of some breakdowns that we haven’t had as often as you might think, and our one-on-one defense—they hurt us at the point position where they were able to break us down on some straight-line drives.”
On if Olivier Nkamhoua’s recent success will lead to more playing time:
“We do think he is getting better. We felt like at times. We are hoping this time it is. We thought defensively, he was as good as he has been. We still want him to be more active and more athletic. We think he is an athlete. We see it. He has to put it out there. We want don’t want him to be timid. We want him to go in and play with reckless abandon in some areas. He is capable of blocking shots. We thought Saturday was maybe the most he has been locked in from a scouting report, where you could tell he was really thinking when he was in the game and he was really concentrating on the things he needs to do for us.”
On Tennessee’s inconsistencies:
“I think sometimes we’ve got to give our opponents credit. It’s not like we’re going to overwhelm anybody in the league with talent. We’re talented, but there’s a lot of teams in the league that have talent, too. When talented teams play, sometimes it gets down to who’s making shots more or who’s playing better that day. Do I think where we are is fixable? Absolutely, and I think that’s the exciting thing about it. We haven’t played to the ability that I think we can, and for that to happen we need our guys who have been through it longer to be more consistent. The more consistent they are and the more balanced we are—we definitely need Yves and John Fulkerson and V.J. Bailey. We need those guys playing at the level that we know they’re capable of. The two young guys, I think they’re working hard. I think they’re playing hard. They have the attitude that we want them to have. They’re just learning that not every game is the same.
“We talk to them about it and try to show them as much as we can, but some of that is going to be experience. They’re playing the most minutes they’ve ever played in their life probably at a high level. They both weren’t very good overall defensively Saturday, and I think fatigue had a little bit to do with it. I know that we can get better with that where they understand that on the offensive end, they did exert some energy sometimes in some areas where they didn’t need to. They got a crowd around them and took some tough shots when they should’ve kicked it out to open shooters. If they’re going to rest, they’re going to have to rest on the offensive end. You can’t rest on the defensive end. As you mature, you learn how to do that. You learn how to work a game as a player. Everybody is going to get winded. You’ve got to learn how to do that in a game without giving up easy baskets on the defensive end. We have coached teams that have been inconsistent. There’s a lot of teams that have gone through this because of the difference in the year. I think these guys have continued to work, and they know that we can get better and play better than we have in some situations.”
On how John Fulkerson responded to coming off the bench against LSU:
“I think it helped him in some ways because we showed him that if he would do what he did the first three minutes into the game—he ran the floor, we made a couple of great passes to him. He had a rim shot. He had another one before he even thought about scoring. That’s what I mean when I talk about hunting shots. He had the ball right where we wanted it, and instead of looking to score, he passed the ball out. There was nobody around him. He had no reason to pass it out. He was right where he should be. Then, he had a really good slip play, where he got the ball but was lazy going to the rim and got it blocked. Those should be dunks. That’s four points that he should have had, but he didn’t. What he did is, he got his hands to the ball, he broke it loose and we were able to come up with.
“I do know he cares enough about himself and this team that he wants to do well. I can’t tell you why he looks tired. Well, I do know. I think he’s had a year where he’s been game-planned for hard and teams have come after him really hard. They’re trying to be physical with him. He showed Saturday—if you watch the game through our eyes—that when he first came in the game that’s the John Fulkerson that we know he can be. He’s just going to have to do it longer. If he can do that for 25 minutes a night, it would help us a lot. He did it for two and a half or three minutes. He was doing what he needed to do. He did have a few busted ball screen plays. He’s been doing it longer than anybody and those shouldn’t happen. He’ll be fine. We’ll keep figuring out what we want to do with the lineup. I don’t think it matters. I told you guys that before. We still need seven or eight guys playing at a very high level and playing 20+ minutes for this team to be what we need it to be.”
On how different the NCAA Tournament will be this year since the seeding won’t be geographical:
“I’m not sure there’s going to be a lot of difference. I do know this: from day one, the NCAA Tournament committee is working. They’re out and watching games. They’re looking at it. I think they will, obviously, take into consideration how different teams have had to deal with COVID-19. But I think it will probably—l go back to how it used to be, maybe in the 90’s and early 2000s, where you have to look at it when the numbers might now tell the tale. You’re going to have to look at it because they’re charge is to put the 68 best teams in the Tournament, whatever that may be. In a year like we have right now, is it more difficult without all of the computer stuff that I guess they used to do? I don’t really know enough about it to really tell you that. They could tell you that. I do know this: They will be as fair and as responsible as they possibly can be to get the best 68 teams. We know that the Tournament represents every state in the country. It’s a huge event for our country. I know that the basketball committee has taken it seriously from day one, to make sure they can get their eyes on as much and as many games. I’d be shocked if that committee hasn’t watched every game at every level that they’ve been able to get.”
On if he has any idea about Tennessee making up games that have been postponed this year:
“You know, I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not sure exactly how the SEC has done it. I don’t know if they have just gone back from day one that was missed, I don’t know how they do it. Again, I think they have done a great job with trying to get us through this year. Like you said, there are three open dates, but I don’t know. I really don’t know how it will be but I would be surprised if those games are not made up someway somehow, but what the rhythm will be, I don’t know. I’m not sure anybody knows right now because of the weather going on around the country right now and other things that pop up that could cancel the game this week, so I just don’t think we know.”
On the challenges South Carolina presents:
“His teams always play hard. A little bit different than a year ago because of the amount of time they have missed. There is not a better coach (Frank Martin) in the country. His teams, it is in their DNA to play really hard and turn people over. They rebound the ball. I think they are playing at the 10th-fastest pace in the country, which is not what in the past you would associate with him. I think he’s done an unbelievable job in the amount of time he has had to practice to make the adjustments he has made. You know any time you go up against his teams, it is going to be a hard-fought basketball game. They are going to compete at every level. They are going to play every possession like it matters. They are hard in the gaps and do a great job with the gap strips. In the past, they might have been out in the passing lane more. With the kind of defense he normally likes to run, it does take time a lot of work day in and day out. No one teaches it any better than he does. He has had to make some adjustments and that is why he is the coach that he is.”
On how he has seen Santiago Vescovi progress since he arrived at Tennessee:
“You know, it is kind of a long way obviously. He was not in shape at all and what he did a year ago was really pretty phenomenal. But, I think he is learning now that people are game-planning for him at a very high level. They’re trying to get him in as many ball screen situations and isolation situations, and he is learning that. But he is a better defender than people might think, and you see him when he brings the ball down the court, people are trying to get into him and harass him like that. He is very stubborn in the fact that I have told him many times—and I tell the other guards why to make him go through that just go get the ball from him because he is great moving without the ball. He’s not afraid of the pressure at all, he’s just not. But I think he is learning a lot and he is still young, and I think he is going to continue to get better. We need him to play at a speed, and he’s comfortable playing at a speed. But he has come a long way, and he is continuing to learn a lot. But he is going to continue to get better as time goes on.”
On how Jaden Springer has performed over the last three games:
“Well, do you know if you know the level he is going to score at—I don’t know if you ever know that. First of all, Jaden is a really good passer—you have to throw Keon in there too, and they’re not afraid to go and initiate a play in which we have needed that. We want it from other guys. We want it from Yves. We want it from Fulky. We want it from all of our guys to want to be aggressive. Those guys have done it, but like I said Saturday, Jaden made a couple of terrific passes, and he took two shots he should’ve kicked out. Keon is learning you’re not going to be able to continue to spin, and we’ve told him that. Sometimes, you have to keep getting burnt until you understand it.
“With Jaden I am not surprised. Since we have watched him in high school, he’s a major league competitor, and you have a no idea how strong he is in his lower body. He has worked really hard on shooting the basketball, and he’s obviously done a good job with that. He’s always been a great finisher around the rim, and he’s got the mid-range game. I think the biggest thing he’s done is learning how to play through fatigue for the first time in his life. It’s where he is really playing hard, hitting that wall, and figuring out how to get through it, as opposed to hitting it and getting knocked back. So, it has taken him time to do that. Some of that too is missing the summer and the normal year, and that’s probably where it’s hurt his and Keon’s conditioning more. Now that we are at this time of year, they have had to play their way into shape, whereas they are normally in shape for this time. That’s the biggest thing both guys have done, where they have gone from playing 24-26 minutes a game, to where they have been out there 30-plus, and for the most part they have been productive on both ends.”
On Victor Bailey Jr.’s recent struggles:
“I think VJ is learning to play basketball in a different way and understanding you can impact the game when you’re not making shots. In the past, that’s where he saw his worth, but we still need him to do that and take open shots and be aggressive. Learning to guard on and off the ball is important obviously, but he is a good enough player that he should be able to impact the game whether or not he’s making shots. We still want him to be who he is in that area.
“With all of our guys, we can’t trade baskets. You can’t do that the way we want to win, and we’re going to have to get stops at some point in time. He’s gotten much better at understanding what we’re trying to do as a team. He has spent a lot of time recently at practice trying to play the point, in which that will help him learn to impact the game on the offensive end. It obviously puts him in a lot of ball screen situations in practice, so those areas are where he needed work, and if he gets that kind of rep, sooner or later it’s going to show up for him.”