Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes met with the media Thursday ahead of the Vols’ Saturday showdown with Kentucky at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols are winners of five straight and playing perhaps their best basketball of the season while Kentucky has struggled, losers of three of its first four SEC games.
The rivalry matchup has an extra flare to it as Tennessee is retiring Chris Lofton’s No. 5 jersey at halftime of the game.
Barnes discussed Kentucky’s recent struggles, Chris Lofton and much more ahead of Saturday’s matchup.
More From RTI: How Santiago Vescovi Reminds Jerry Stackhouse Of Manu Ginobili
On what he’s seen from Kentucky
“What I know is the respect I have for John Calipari and his program. What he’s meant not only to the University of Kentucky but to college basketball in general. When you think of his teams, all I know is they always get better. Always. I don’t care what has happened up to this point with either the University of Kentucky or the University of Tennessee. You can throw all of that out. It’s going to be a game where both teams are going to play hard, going to try to get better. So we’re going to have to be ready to play. You go back and look, like a lot of teams in college basketball, they’ve had injuries they’re dealing with. I’m not sure he’s had his whole team together all year. One thing I do know, that his teams always play better and play their best basketball late in the year. Hope that people can say the same thing about us, that we’re going to get better and we’re still going to play our best basketball later on.”
On the success they’ve had against Kentucky at Thompson-Boling Arena, winning five of seven
“One, I think you’ve got to give Kentucky a lot of credit for when they go on the road. They’ve had great success in that program. Certainly since John has been there, he’s taken it to a different level, where people expect. It’s like one of those basketball programs that, wherever they go, people want to come seem them play. Your fans get excited. I think most would say you’re envious of that, you want that. We want that wherever we go. We want to build it. But it takes a long, long time over many, many years, which Kentucky has been successful in basketball, you go back, what, 40s, 50s, I don’t think there’s a decade they haven’t had great success. So it’s a compliment to the people that have coached there, that have not only carried that one but improved it. I can tell you, John Calipari has improved it as much as any coach they’ve ever had.”
On what Chris Lofton has meant to the Tennessee basketball program
“We all should be excited for Chris. When you think about, I’ve never met anyone that can say ill thing about Chris. When you come into a situation like we did eight years ago, and you want to build something special, but you also know you need past players and people involved to help you do that, he embraced us. He really, from the time he came around, one, because he loves this university so much. The second thing is he loves being in the gym. I think our players had a chance up close to see a real professional go at his craft and see what he needs to do. But lay that aside, the kind of person he is and what he stands for, his love for the Lord and the way that he’s real, he’s as real as can be. Then you throw in the fact that he had to fight cancer. He’s such a great person. And it’s more. The way he loves the program. I don’t know of any era that doesn’t love him because of the way he loves this place.”
On what makes Oscar Tshiebwe such an effective rebounder
“Effort. Got a great second, third lift off the ground. Great angle player. Terrific hands. Really quick with the ball. Quick with hands from his shoulders over his head. Extends, plays with extension. Willing to leave his area to go get rebounds. But he’s got really good body control. He doesn’t have to be so much technically correct in terms of footwork, he just has a knack. And when he rebounds, he has a great touch around the rim. Rebounding, as we know, it’s effort. It’s also in some DNA. He’s definitely got it in his DNA.”
On the importance of containing Oscar Tshiebwe
“It’s hard. You say contain him, when you have a guy that’s averaging a double-double like he has for so many years, I don’t know if you can contain him. You just have to hope you can make him work for everything that he gets, because he’s going to get it. If you don’t make him work for it, he’s going to get a lot more than his numbers show.”
On what Kentucky looks like with and without Cason Wallace, what he does well
“Cason is a terrific player. It goes back to with our team, I could say the same with our team. You get new guys in the program. You’re learning them, they’re learning you. I think what Cason has done, he’s gone in there, he’s learned the program, he’s learned the system. His roles probably changed a little bit from where he started. But that’s part of the coaching part of it, where you are more around players, you learn more about them and they learn more what you need them to do. Cason has done a little bit of all of that for them. A guy that, again, he can do a lot of things on both ends of the court.”
On what he remembers from the two times he coached against Lofton
“If I speak to you honestly about the first game in Austin, we had six players we had in the game that we wanted to play because one of our guys, Daniel Gibson, got a concussion the day before the game. He was a non-factor. They played great. Coming in here, we had the game won and the officials took over.”
On Chris Lofton’s shot over Kevin Durant
“I know it was a deep one. I tell people all the time, all they have to do is look at the tape. I was telling someone yesterday, it was a major turning point game for Kevin Durant. He had played great. Made a couple decisions at the end of the game that weren’t very good. After that game, he really had a whole different focus on college basketball. He came back after Christmas, it was right before our Christmas break here, he came back and said coach I really want to learn how to play this game not just from a physical standpoint but from a mental standpoint. Within about a week, he took off like a rocket and won every national player of the year. When you ask me what stands out, that is what really stands out to me.”
On Zakai Zeigler’s recent success
“I think it is understanding the game and wanting to be better. He wants to get better as a player. He is all about winning. He is a highly competitive player. We are asking him to continue to learn a position he has never truly played in terms of understanding what a point guard has to play. He is starting to get it. The exciting thing, he is only a year and a half into this. Just to think about what he can continue to become.”
On the tape on the backboards during practice is helping players
“I wish we could leave them up. I think it has helped. We have preached that forever, getting the ball higher off the glass. Getting it up there. That has made them focus more. We used to have a piece of white tape that went horizontal, but they seem to like that better and I wish we would have done that sooner.”
On the rivalry with Kentucky
“Rivalries aren’t rivalries unless you beat each other. That is what I think, we have competed against each other now since we have been here. It has gone on forever. You go back through the years, there has been times when maybe, Kentucky has double the wins I think. If it is going to be a rivalry, you have to beat somebody. For that to happen, we are going to have to continue to play good basketball because they are going to play. They are going to get better. I don’t care what has happened up to this point. I know John Calipari and I know how he is. Nobody is going to work harder. Nobody is going to put more into it. He is locked in on one thing and that is figuring out how to get these guys better and I fully expect them to be better when they come in here tomorrow.”
On how the game at Rupp last season changed the season
“I think it was a big wake-up call for Kennedy Chandler. He went in that game and played one of his worst games he played. To see where he came from that game until the end of last year was really a compliment to him. I think that was a game where he really learned it was going to be a whole lot different than I thought it was going to be. Maybe for a couple other guys. But they played great. It is a night where they made every shot. They played great basketball. When teams are doing that, if you are not competing at the highest level, they are going to put it on you like they put it on us.”