Tennessee men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes met with the media Wednesday, a day after the Vols’ officially began their preseason practice.
It marks the first time Barnes talked with the media ahead of the 2022-23 season. The eighth-year head coach discussed his newcomers and his takeaways on the Vols just under six weeks away from the season opener.
Here are three takeaways from Barnes’ Wednesday media availability
Key And Phillips Impressing With Work Ethic
Tennessee’s most anticipated newcomers are Indiana State transfer Tyreke Key and five-star freshman Julian Phillips.
The first words out of Barnes’ mouth about both players was complimenting their versatility. That wasn’t the only thing the duo have in common according to their new head coach.
Barnes was very complimentary of both of their work ethics, especially the freshman Phillips’ desire to improve in the weight room.
“He has worked probably as hard as any player we have had since we have been here in terms of extra time in the weight room,” Barnes said of Phillips. “He has gone above and beyond with his time with Garrett (Medenwald). Every chance he got on the weekend, he stayed and wanted to get that done. He is a very skilled basketball player. He has a terrific feel for the game. His versatility is going to be huge for us. Like all young guys coming in, he still has to understand a lot defensively. That is not unusual. He is going to work at it every day to try and get it.”
Both players versatility will be important for a Tennessee roster that has few major holes but can throw a myriad of looks at teams.
The 6-foot-8 Phillips is a wing player, but his forward height and massive wing span gives him the versatility to play the four in the college level, much like Josiah Jordan-James did often a season ago. Phillips physicality and defense — as Barnes mentioned — will be questions, but Phillips versatility adds to an already diverse Tennessee roster.
Perhaps the only hole on Tennessee’s roster is its lack of a second point guard. Zakai Zeigler should be in for a massive workload this season, but who handles the ball when he isn’t in the game is in question.
Among a number of options, Key is a candidate to play some point guard. The former First Team All-MVC selection played shooting guard while averaging 17 points per game for Indiana State.
“His versatility,” Barnes said of Key. “He has terrific instincts. We’re telling him that we’d like to see him play the point some and learn different positions but he’s got a game where he can be effective in so many different ways. Just an incredible work ethic. Committed. He’s tough on himself. But he brings it every day. He’s never fought us on one thing. He’s going to make a huge impact for us because of his versatility.”
Phillips is five grades younger than the sixth-year senior Key, but both bring some of the same traits to Rocky Top.
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Strong Leadership And More Desire To Play With Tempo
Barnes often talks about his desire for his teams to play faster. Tennessee hasn’t ranked higher than 100th nationally in adjusted tempo since Barnes took over. The veteran coach wants his eighth team in Knoxville to play at a faster pace.
“Just the skill level and the speed that we have,” Barnes said on why he wants to play faster. “And the fact that I think we can get down the floor and spread the floor. We have shot the ball well. There are going to be nights where it is not going the way you want it to. We have really made a conscious effort to get better rebounding on both ends. We need to certainly get better that. Just with the versatility we have on the perimeter we think we should be able to play quicker and faster.”
While wanting to play quicker is a common talking point for Barnes, complimenting his team’s leadership is something he doesn’t do lightly.
Barnes called this year’s team one of the hardest working he’s had to this point, crediting the team’s leadership for developing that trait.
The coach raved about his team’s leadership following its SEC Tournament Championship win over Texas A&M and the bulk of that group is back. Senior Josiah-Jordan James, Santiago Vescovi and Olivier Nkamhoua are program staples who understand the expectations while Zeigler is never short on competitive fire.
That culture and veteran leadership could foster an environment when newcomers have immediate success.
“We tell the newcomers that, that if they’re smart they’ll really take great notes and notice, and hitch their wagons, to those older guys,” Barnes said. “I think that we’ve seen that probably more so with this group than any. Our older guys, they’ve done a terrific job with these young guys, they really have. Letting them know how we want things done. Letting them know that we’re very much a detail-oriented program, when you do what you’re supposed to do, it’s all going to work out and everything is going to be fine, just take care of the details.”
B.J. Edwards The Surprise Of Summer
One of the new Vols who are in a spot to benefit from the strong structure and leadership is four-star point guard B.J. Edwards. The Knoxville native got off to a strong start after enrolling this summer and joining the team.
“If you really pressed me really hard, and asked me who I was most surprised with, it would probably be B.J.,” Barnes said. “The fact that, you know what, he had to, with Santi (Vescovi) being gone, go against Zakai (Zeigler) every single day. Just like Kennedy (Chandler) a year ago, I think certainly B.J. would say the same thing, that as tough it was, it was great for him because Zakai is one of those guys that is never in the offseason. He’s in season form all the time, the way he brings it every single day and watching B.J. handle that every day was really neat. Again, somewhat surprising, to be quite frank.”
Like previously mentioned with Key, Edwards could earn minutes as a back up ball handler this season. Zeigler baptizing Edwards in his unrelenting competitiveness is good for Edwards and gave him a quick measuring stick to the top point guards in the SEC.
While Edwards spent the summer at point guard, Barnes sees the 6-foot-3 guard playing both on-and-off the ball.
“I think both,” Barnes said of what position Edwards will play. “When he first got here, he strictly played the point, all summer long. But we want him to be off the ball, because with the group we have, we like to get our guards rebounding more and … knowing multiple positions. It will help all of them because it gives them a chance to, obviously, not just be locked in on one position.”
It’s a long way until season tip off but Edwards seemingly passed his first test this summer as he attempts to carve out a role in his debut collegiate season.