Tennessee coach Rick Barnes got a small dose of revenge against the university that fired him nine years ago. In his second shot at the Longhorns since coming to Knoxville, Barnes and the Vols knocked off No. 10 Texas, 82-71, at Thompson-Boling Arena Saturday.
The Vols got massive production from senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua (27 points and eight rebounds) and sophomore point guard Zakai Zeigler (22 points and 10 assists) as Tennessee’s offense turned in one of its best performances of the season.
Barnes discussed the strong play of Nkamhoua and Zeigler, the final Big 12/SEC Challenge and much more. Here’s everything eighth-year head coach said.
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On Olivier Nkamhoua’s play
“He was terrific. He was absolutely terrific. And it started yesterday in practice. I think without question yesterday was the best practice he’s had since he’s been here, with what he brought. His energy, the fact that he carried it over. Really happy for him because I know how much he cares and how much he wants to do the right thing. To see him come out and play the way he did today, it was really special. Really happy for him.”
On Zakai Zeigler
“What can you say about him? I mean, he’s got to be right there with the very best point guards in the country when you think about what he does night in and night out, consistently doing it. Learning the position as he goes through with it. Defensively, he does it. How many minutes did he play tonight? 37. Always asking him how you feeling, he says I’m fine coach. The fact is, he’s distributing the ball. He got a little excited when he had a chance to — give them credit, we could’ve really stretched it out, but they’re an older, experienced team. They stayed in it. They maintained their poise. Z got a little excited, turned it over, I think they scored six straight points off turnovers the we were trying to force too much. What he’s learning how to do is make his teammates better, which is the sign of a point guard — Zakai becoming a point guard — understanding that’s his job. Find a way to make his teammates better on the offensive end. I think as he continues to do that, he’s going to make everybody better. And by doing that, we get better.”
On bottling up the energy Olivier Nkamhoua had and getting it more consistently from him
“That is a great question. If I could figure that out. Last year it hit him all at once, where he was playing great basketball when he got hurt. Maybe this was what he needed to get him going. I thought really searched out his spots on the floor. I thought he understood tonight where he wanted to get the ball, what he wanted to do. Never looked rushed. Never looked like he was not sure what he wanted to do. I just hope this gives him the kind of confidence he can keep going with. He works. You guys know, he loves the game and he works at it. He deserved tonight.”
On if that was Tennessee’s most consistent effort for 40 minutes
“They got a lot in the second half. Then again, Rodney does a terrific job. He’s handled a very difficult situation. He’s a very poised individual and I think the team, their team, played with a lot of poise. The fact that we didn’t play as many people tonight. We were giving up back cuts, easy baskets. That’s what they do. They run a really good motion game, because you’re really trying to work hard. They’re a really good two-point shooting team. You’re trying to run them off cuts and you get too aggressive doing that. They do a great job back-cutting you. They did a great job doing that. Tonight was too many times. At the end of the game, we can’t do what we did at the end of the game, not being ready on an out-of-bounds play. Giving up two 3-point plays back-to-back. Those type of things. But we beat a really good basketball team tonight.”
On what has made this defense special and how good it is to still win despite Texas playing well in the second half
“Well, I think the key is we’ve got individuals that want to be good defensive players and we’ve got individuals that can not only guard the basketball consistently well, but also can help their teammate. The last couple of weeks we’ve really tried to harp on our switches, because we really love to switch. We like to go one through five if we can with our post guys being able to stay in front of the ball, but the biggest thing that we try to get them to understand is personnel, when we do switch. Do you understand how we need to play this particular player at this particular time. Tonight, really some of the breakdowns, and I might be wrong when I watch the tape, but what I saw tonight, I thought our guards didn’t do a very good job in switching situations with some of the three’s we gave up, some of the good looks they got early in the game. Transition defense wasn’t great. They had some looks that could have very well gone down. To really answer your question, we’ve got a group of guys that really believe in defense and they want to be good at it. That’s a big part of it. Guys that want to be good at it and know it’s something we have to be good at to be the team we want to be. There’s a lot of things that go into it, but that’s where I think, too, our guys know we have to get better with some things.”
On Texas coach Rodney Terry saying that Tennessee has the ingredients to make it to the Final Four
“I would say that about his team, too. The fact that this year, at this point in time in the season, I’m not sure that any team has totally separated themselves. There’s a lot of basketball left. Here’s what I would say. I heard Jay Bilas say it today, that this time a year ago today, North Carolina had the exact same record they had right now, and got it turned around and got it going. Kansas a year ago today got beat by 30 points, just like Alabama did today, so it’s a long way to go. Every game, again, I think all of the games are big. I do. I always tell our team in November, if you don’t think this game is big, wait until March.
“Right now, I love this team. We’ve got a chance to be as good as we want to be. I think that it’s up to one thing. Are we tough enough to embrace the daily grind? Not worry about going to the Final Four, not worry about the NCAA Tournament. But can we build a team that can be successful that time of year. It starts with truly embracing the grind every single day and it’s tough because we’ve been at it a long time. Can you knock out all of the noise around you? Can you let whatever is out there, the noise, talk about it and just be able to come to work. I told them today we’ve got to have a man’s mentality in the fact that when we come in here and we get ready for games, it’s not about being emotional and jacked up. It’s about taking care of business and knowing that it’s hard to win games against the University of Texas. And now I think we go to Florida next week. It’s hard. It’s only going to get harder because in February, teams get better. That’s why have to get better.”
On if it’s easier to stick with a guy like Olivier because he wants to be better
“Oh, absolutely. I love O. I love him to death. If I could put it on him every night I’d love to because he really wants to be good and he and I have— a couple weeks ago we had a long, long talk where he got emotional with me and just said, ‘I don’t know why but I want to do it and you know I want to do it.’ The fact is I do know he wants to do it and the fact is he’s a guy, practice he’s coming back every night. He’s going to be up there in Pratt every single, or if this is open he’ll be here. You just keep working but I’ve also told him he’s got to embrace the mental side of it. More than anything, understand what he’s truly good at and he is good. There’s a lot of things he really does well. I was just so proud of him getting in his stance, really trying to fix some things because the other night against Georgia, the very first play of the game he blew a ball screen coverage the very first play of the game and I told him, I know you don’t want to do it. Why’d you do it? He just said, my mind’s not in the right place and I said well when you get it there, and he came out in practice yesterday and he was all over the place. That’s a part of the growth process. Sometimes a light comes on sooner or later for some people but I promise you if you ask anybody on the team who they want to see do well they would tell you they want— he cares and he cares a great deal, so obviously we’re all happy for him.”
On what about Olivier’s Friday practice besides energy led to his success against Texas
“He had a dunk yesterday in practice and the whole place came to life. He went in there yesterday and it looked like he dunked it with his armpit and I walk over and ‘why are you holding back? Why don’t you do that all the time.’ At least try to do it. Sometimes players can put a block up but the fact is his teammates trust him and he actually was going to take himself out at one point tonight which I’m proud of but a timeout came and I said to him, which I don’t know if I’ve ever said it to him, how you feel? Do you want to stay in the game? He said, yes this is all I need. I said, okay stay in the game because normally he’s tired I would say let’s do it. I know the guys are really happy for him.”
On this being the final Big 12/SEC Challenge
“Well, this is going to be a conference game with Texas. I think that when it started, I think it was a good thing for both leagues. I also think it took ESPN a couple years to get it in this spot. They wanted it from the very beginning this is where they wanted to play it between the (NFL) playoffs in football and that. I think it has been good for both leagues. I don’t know where it is right now today, but next year we start the ACC (challenge). Next year, well the next year, Oklahoma and Texas will come into the league. It will be a conference game from here on out. I think the challenge, the only thing I didn’t like about the challenge and I said it from the time I went to the Big 12, we were talking about doing these challenges and I was in the Big East back when the ACC/Big East started. Always somebody from the Big East got left out. I never thought it was fair. They said there was a rotation system. Well, I never saw it. It just seemed like Providence, Boston College and somebody else — and I get it. I know enough about it to know it is a TV push. The thing starting with the ACC next year, when it starts it will have all of our teams in it. Then when we come in, they will be without one team. It is a real challenge. Think about it, Texas A&M, they are not even in it. I don’t know if we can call it a real challenge. You wish you could schedule the games the week before and really get the teams and matchups that you wanted, but I do think you have to have all the teams play to call it a real challenge.”
On Olivier Nkamhoua’s matchup advantages against Texas
“We just felt like ball screens with Zakai getting there. They certainly are a very physical team. They pay a lot of attention to shooters. I don’t think they were willing to leave Santi, Josiah, those guys on the perimeter. Normally, we do a couple different things in the ball screen. With him there, we were just trying to open the court up and give Z a lot of room to operate and try to give somebody behind. It was good. They also turned us over twice at a critical time and scored off of it. It comes back to where I think Zakai is just getting better and better in ball screens and starting to see the whole court.”
On what about this team’s offense is underrated
“I don’t know if it is underrated. The question I asked our guys last night, I stopped the film last night when we were in a defensive possession in practice, and I saw four guys pointing, talking and talking and helping each other. I said why don’t we do that on offense? I said you guys obviously understand what you are supposed to do defense. Why can’t we totally buy in and understand it is hard to play really good offense against a team like Texas that can really guard. I said until we can execute at the level we need to — that means guys that screen need to screen, guys that need to cut, need to cut. We need to do a better job putting the ball where it needs to be. I said it is hard. You are running offense and looking for timing out of it. You are looking for fundamental basketball. We are a very fundamental team defensively. When we are not playing good offense, it is because we are not very good fundamentally. We dribble the ball too much, not locked into where we need to get the ball and what we need to be looking for. When we are locked in on the offensive end, I think we are a good offensive team.”