Tennessee coach Rick Barnes met with the media Friday afternoon in Orlando as the Vols prepare to face Duke in the Round of 32 Saturday afternoon.
The Blue Devils are playing as well as any team in the country entering the matchup, winning 10 straight games ahead of the matchup.
Barnes discussed the turnovers that have plagued Tennessee, Duke’s impressive interior defense and much more. Here’s everything Barnes said ahead of the NCAA Tournament matchup.
More From RTI: Previewing The Duke Blue Devils
On recruiting Duke coach Jon Scheyer as a player while at Texas, Scheyer joking he would have gone to Texas if he knew they were getting Kevin Durant
“Obviously I didn’t know I was going to get him (Durant) at the time. Yeah, Jon is a good player, good person. I think Jon could have gone anywhere he wanted to go, and he obviously picked Duke, and it’s worked out well for him. Terrific player. We played against him — I don’t remember. I just know we played against him in the NCAA Tournament somewhere and they beat us, they knocked us out. Always have great respect for him and the way he handles himself. Saw him on the road last summer at the Peach Jam in Augusta, the first time I had seen him since he got the job and congratulated him. And certainly worthy of it and really has done a terrific job.
Always a tough situation when you follow someone that — what Mike did there. But Jon really has done a great job with this team. I think he’s done a great job getting through some injuries earlier in the year, but getting them to where they’re playing their best basketball right now at the right time.”
On if he believes its an advantage to play a close game in the first round
“At the time last night, I wish it would have been a little bit easier, but we had a lead, and we needed to make our free throws when a team starts hitting some threes. But I go back to a year ago, it was kind of the opposite. We played — came out, played really well, then went up against obviously a tougher opponent. I do think, and I mentioned this last night, what we’ve gone through in our league the last month, I think has helped us win a game like last night.
I’m not so sure we’d have known how to handle it if it would have stayed easy last night because it seems like every game for the last month has been a one- or two-possession game coming down the stretch, and you certainly hope this time of year that all that’s going to come back to help you when you most need it.”
On the importance of the rebounding battle against Duke
“Well, I think on paper they’re probably the biggest team in the tournament, and they make a great effort to go get there. We’ve always believed that it’s a talent. It’s got to somewhat be in your DNA that you want to go get it like they do.
They run really good offense. They space the floor well, and I think they know where their shots are coming from. So they’re ready to go get it, so that will be a big part of tomorrow’s game, but it’s a big part of every game. But again, as we watch film with our players, that was one of the big emphasis. We know that they’re going to come to the glass, they know we’re going to come to the glass, so I expect that to be a big part of the game.”
On the key to Jahmai Mashack’s development
“Well, one is his work ethic. It started — he came in as a freshman, like most freshmen, not understanding what — learning how to practice hard is a big thing, learning all the details that go into being a consistent, good college basketball player. But at the end of last season, really as soon as we got back in the spring, we spent a lot of time together in the gym just totally reconstructing his shot to really help him there because he needed to do that. Because he is a guy that can drive the ball. He’s got a great talent in the fact that he’s a high-level competitor. That you’re going to get from him every single night.
I think now, playing more minutes, he relies even more and more on the importance of being cardio tough, learning how to play through fatigue. And the fact that he right now — I think if you had asked me at the start of the season if we’re going to be in the NCAA in the first round game, our leading scorer was going to be he and Tyreke Key and Uros, I wouldn’t have thought that. But I think all their growth — but he’s worked hard. I know his teammates respect him because of what he does every single day. And having to compete against Santi, he would tell you, that’s who he — until he really became on the first team, that’s who he went against every day. That’s not easy to do because what Santi does when he’s out there under the lights, he does every day in practice.”
On the importance of having an extra day off unlike the SEC Tournament
“It’s a huge difference. Like for instance, back to back is really difficult on a guy like Josiah who still honestly is working his way back to where he wants to be. But a day off is much different than just back to back.
Guys that play a lot of minutes, they need it. Their bodies and — we’re lucky that we’ve got a great trainer, great strength and conditioning coach, who if you guys knew what they did behind the scenes to try to get the recovery back for those guys that played those minutes. Because we know, again, tomorrow is going to be as hard a fought game, physical game as we’ll ever be in.”
On how long it takes teams to adjust after losing a key player, whether it’s easier or harder with more games in less time
“Well, it’s tough when it happened to Zakai because we had been dealing with injuries — you go back to, I think, the Mississippi State game on the road, we had two starters or two players that didn’t play. I know Santi didn’t play. I think he missed a couple games. Josiah certainly missed games, Julian missed games. We had different guys that are in key spots for us. But Zakai had been the one guy that you go back to in late-game situations, most of our late-game situation package went through him. And to lose him — and you go back to the Arkansas game, it was the first game that we went into to where we felt like, okay, now we’re hitting our stride at the right time. Then obviously he got hurt early in the game, and we fought through that. I’m glad we were at home at that time because I thought we played really hard against a good Arkansas team.
But it’s been different. At this time of year, that’s probably the hardest position to overcome because of what his value to us was. But we done like we’ve done all year, we haven’t made a big deal about it. We miss him and he knows it, but we just said, hey, someone else is going to have to pick up some slack and more guys are going to have to contribute. These guys have been resilient, they really have, because our expectations are higher than anybody’s, and when we lost some games coming down the stretch at the end, it can take its toll on you. But we go in the film room, we look at it, show what we did wrong and say, let’s see if we can go out and fix it. And they’ve never ever not — never stopped trying to get better. But it’s hard when you lose a key guy, and certainly Zakai is a key guy with what he was doing for us when we lost him.”
On how the loss to Michigan has motivated this team
“Well, I knew when we left a year ago when we got beat, I knew that the devastation was there because they wanted to keep playing. But I think they also learned — they talked about it, we obviously have talked about it, they’ve talked about it, how it’s hard, it’s really hard to win. Getting here is hard, and winning first-round games because of such parity now in college basketball, that getting started is one of the hardest things.And then when you get going — like I look at us, I can’t imagine a 5 seed better than Duke right now, and I can’t imagine how Houston feels having the year they have and having to play basically an 8, 9 seed winner on their home court. It’s hard.
Some of it you don’t understand with the way things happen. But I do think our guys talked about how hard it is, and they know that there can be no letdown. There can be — you can’t take anything for granted. Not that they did a year ago. I don’t think they did. But it’s a learning process. It’s something being here that you would never take for granted because again, there’s a lot of teams that like to be here.”
On what Julian Phillips is giving them right now
“Again, you go back to Julian, I think there’s certain injuries that are hard in the middle of the season. Groin pulls, hamstring pulls, those things are really difficult. They don’t get better overnight. When you have a hip flexor like he had, it doesn’t get better overnight. He’s worked hard. We felt, again, there’s a guy that was starting to hit his stride, and then he had the problem with the hip flexor and it took him to come out of action really two and a half, three weeks before he could — he was trying. Again, go back to the Texas A&M game, he and Josiah didn’t play in that game. Josiah was overcoming a high ankle sprain. They tried. They were out in shootaround wanting to help the team any way they could, but they knew they couldn’t do what they needed to do to help us win.
I think he’s still finding his way to get back. I really do. We’re going to need him tomorrow in a big way. We’re going to need him tomorrow because his length and his mindset can help us. But this is all new to him, too. It’s his first time, and I know that — do I think he’s 100 percent now? I don’t, but I know he’s going to give us everything that he has.”
On what Jonas Aidoo did defensively against Louisiana, his important against Duke
“Well, our front line, their front line, it’s going to be a lot of big guys on the court, and we need Jonas to do that. We need him to — his length. I thought his length was a factor last night, too. I thought Uros had a really good — got it going for us physically when he started the game yesterday.
But Jonas is going to be important. He is important. What he does with his length, we need him. We actually need him when he’s open to shoot the ball because you guys know he’s a good shooter. But we’re going to need him. We’re going to need him to play big tomorrow.”
On giving up runs
“Yeah, we talk about it. Obviously we talk about taking care of the basketball a lot. That’s one of our major — you ask our guys what’s important, they’ll tell you defense, rebounding, taking care of the ball. But I do, I go back to this year, we’ve had to adjust so many different times with different guys being in and out of our lineup, where I know that’s been a part of it where we’ve had to adjust based on who we had that night and how we thought we had to play. So that’s been a little bit of it.
Probably more of it than I really want to admit really. But the fact is our guys know that you have to do it. But last night you’re playing against a team that’s a good team and we had them on the ropes, and they make a couple shots and we miss free throws. You’ve got to make the free throws. And we did a good job in the first half, but as you said, it’s a game of runs. And we’ve got to — again, the way we turned it over yesterday a couple times, we tripped over setting a screen, we tripped over our own man. I’m not sure on a couple of them what we were doing. We called a set, we didn’t execute twice in those things, and those are the things that, again, we’ve got to make sure we don’t have those blunders tomorrow.”
On his players not being star struck by a team like Duke
“Yeah, you think about it, we’ve beaten the No. 1 seeds this year, I think a No. 2 seed. So yeah, we’re play in a great basketball league, and again, I don’t think — these guys, first of all, they have a lot of respect for the name of Tennessee. We feel like we’re a team that can compete with any team in the country, and these guys have shown this year certainly when we’ve been at full strength — I don’t know if we’ve been at full strength all year. Josiah wasn’t with us at the start of the year.
But the fact is I think our guys have a great deal of respect for what they do, their work, and what they put in year-round to know that they belong wherever they play.”