Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes met with the media Thursday afternoon ahead of the Vols’ regular season finale at Auburn Saturday afternoon.
The eighth-year head coach discussed Zakai Zeigler’s season ending injury, Jonas Aidoo’s strong play against Arkansas and much more.
Here’s everything Barnes said before the regular season finale.
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On his reaction to hearing Zakai Zeigler had a torn ACL
“Well, you know I hate to say it, I felt it when I walked over to him. I’ve been doing this a long time. Just the way he went down, and you knew he was hurt because he never stays down. I’ve seen him go down before, turn his ankle or something, and he popped back up. When I walked up, where he was grabbing his leg, that was my first thought. Because, again, I’ve seen it too many times. So that was really my first thought. That’s what I thought had happened.”
On the plan at point guard with Zakai Zeigler, if one player will get more minutes there than others
“No, I don’t think so. Obviously Santi (Vescovi) could go there. Once the game starts, we get going, other than dead-ball situations, I mean, whoever gets it can go with it. Otherwise, we could change it throughout the game, but I would think Santi would be the first guy that would be there with it. But like I said, all those guys at some point in time has handled the ball. We’ll go that way with it. (Tyreke Key will) be back.”
On if there’s a chance Freddie Dilione could play as a result of the Zakai Zeigler injury
“No, huh uhh. I think BJ (Edwards) has done a good job for us. He’s one of the guys we really do have confidence in. As it gets later in the year, obviously as you guys know, the possessions become very valuable. But he’s handled himself well and we have confidence in him. Again, we know that we’ve got him and he’ll do his job in terms of getting ready. He’ll prepare the right way.”
On finishing strong with SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament seeding on the line
“Well, that’s the key. I don’t think all about the other stuff. I know it changes from game to game, from week to week. I think it’s about the next game. That’s where I really appreciate these guys. I think they’ve stayed focused throughout the process, in terms of coming out everyday and understanding what we need to do to prepare for the next game, going about it. I expect them to do that today and tomorrow and we’ll obviously finish up the regular season at Auburn and wherever we land, we’ll get ready for the next one.”
On if Zakai Zeigler getting hurt this late in the season could affect him early next season
“With all the different guys I’ve had that have gone through this, they all kind of move at their own pace. I mean, I’ve had players that felt after six weeks they could play. Like right now, they’re doing rehab to get him ready for surgery. He’s going to work at it as hard as anybody can possibly work at it. Whatever he has to do. I’ll always go back, he walked in here five days after school started and asserted himself right from the beginning. So whatever his rehab takes, whenever he’s ready to come back, he’ll come back and be ready to go.”
On if there is upside to not getting a double-bye in the SEC Tournament and this team playing an extra game without Zakai Zeigler
“You could look at it any way you want to look at it. If that’s the way you want to look at it. You know, obviously with Zakai being out, whoever we put in we get a little bit longer, with length. But yeah, you could look at it (that way). And I think that’s how you have to look at it. Whatever falls your way, you’ve got to look at it like, hey, this is the way it’s supposed to be and we’ve got to make the most of it.”
On replacing Zakai’s energy
“I think with what they did the other night. They looked at each other and said, we’ve got to collectively continue to do what we’ve done with it. Other guys will be able to impact the game in a different way. We’ve talked about what he’s brought to the program through the years and we’ll have to get, whoever, other guys will be asked to step in here and do some other things. This time of year we need those exclamation points of guys that are willing to go out and make something happen.”
On Auburn being desperate entering this game
“It’ll be a big challenge. It would be a big challenge whether they won last night or not. They played great basketball last night, certainly had themselves in position to win that game and you have to give them great credit. That was as probably as tough a situation as you could go into there and they, I thought, handled themselves extremely well so win or lose we knew Saturday was going to be a challenge anyway you want to look at it. We’re going to have to go in there and be prepared.”
On if he sees this game against Auburn being another low scoring slug fest
“Looking back, I thought both teams missed shots. Both teams had some good looks at it and missed some shots with it. This time of year, I think you go into every game knowing it’s going to be difficult because everyone is wanting to win games and regardless of where they might be. We expect it to be a hard fought game.”
On Jonas Aidoo playing 30 minutes against Arkansas
“What he did the other night is when we, defensively he did exactly what we needed him to do from a defensive standpoint. That was playing against a team that relies heavily on ball screens and putting them heavily in ball screens and we changed coverage different times and whatever coverage we called, he was pretty much on top of it. That’s where he hasn’t been as consistent as we’d like him to be. His length, I thought he did a good job the other night playing long and not really slapping down, unnecessary fouls. He is continuing to get himself in good spots in our driving game where he can catch and score and had a great dump off dunk there. Again, I like to think that he’s starting to figure it out and the consistency of what we need him to do every night.”
On playing three big lineups against Arkansas
“Obviously, regardless of who goes in the game in Zakai’s spot we’re longer than that. Whether it’s B.J. who’s 6’2, 6’3. Tyreke will come back. Again, game-to-game. I can’t tell you we’ll come into each game and what I admire about these guys, they’ve been resilient and I said it the other night, some guys play 25 minutes and the next game they play three but whatever those minutes are we need them to play. We need everybody, which has proven out. So whatever way the game takes, whatever shape it takes we need to be ready.”
On where BJ Edwards has improved that gives him confidence he can help fill in for Zakai Zeigler
“I’m not saying he’s going to fill in. That’s a lot of minutes. I’m saying he’s a guy that we know we’re not afraid to put out there. Where he’s improved is he’s learned a lot of things. The first thing that all these guys have to learn to do is how to practice the right way everyday. What goes into playing at this level. There’s a lot that we ask from our guys. He’s been great at that, he’s been a great teammate and I think he’s learned a great deal. I think he would tell you one of the great advantages that he’s had is getting to guard Zakai and Santi everyday. He has from day one. All summer he had to go up against Zakai and then once Santi got back, had to guard a different kind of player. Through all that I think he’s kept his head up and continued to learn. He’s been really coachable. He knows like all of us, we’ve all got to get better. Maturity wise, the one thing I like about him, as coaches we’d all agree that I don’t think he’s been overwhelmed by going into the games. We don’t really think too many things affect him. All of that put together is why we’ve got confidence in him.”
On how Zakai Zeigler has been emotionally the last two days
“I think each day a little bit better. Obviously after the game last night it was surreal to him because I’m not sure he’s ever — I don’t know if any player is ever 100%, but he’s a guy like I said, he’s going to say, ‘I’m good.’ That’s who he is. You ask him how he is, ‘I’m good.’ I’ve seen him go down many times and get back up. But after the game he was emotional because when it happens, you’re like, ‘Did it really happen?’ Each and every day, he’s put a lot of time (in) back there with (trainer) Chad (Newman) already doing the rehab he needs to do.
“I was kidding today about being tough. I said, ‘If you’re really tough, you’ll come back’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m coming back then today. You tell me what I need to do.’ And he would do that. I promise you if I told him we need you to tape it up as tight as you can and play, he would do it. I promise you. He’s the kind of guy that would do that if it would be for two minutes or three minutes to help his team. He’s such a spirited person and player. It’s tough seeing him back there like that because you know where his heart is and what he wants to do. He won’t lose his role on this team in terms of the way he’ll impact a game from the bench these last couple of games or weeks as we get through to the end of the year. He’ll stay really involved and engaged with his teammates.”
On what he likes about where his team is at right now
“I think defensively our movements have been good. The last two games I think we’ve had a really good combination of our cutting game and ball-screen game and driving game. I think we’ve been able to put a lot of different things together where guys are getting more and more comfortable. Obviously, defensively players have been really locked in to what we want to do on that end. I just think it’s just the players. Their mindset right now knowing we still have a chance to do all that we set out to do.”