Tennessee coach Rick Barnes met with the media in New York City Wednesday afternoon ahead of the Vols’ Thursday night Sweet 16 matchup.
The Vols are looking to make the program’s second ever Elite Eight while Barnes is looking to reach the stage for the first time since 2008.
FAU is looking to make the program’s first ever Elite Eight as coach Dusty May’s squad is in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in program history.
Barnes discussed FAU’s guard play, his Madison Square Garden memories and much more. Here’s everything Barnes had to say.
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On his Madison Square Garden memories, talking about it with team
“You know, we played here, was it a year ago, I think, Texas Tech? I know this: We all enjoy coming here. Certainly the time that I spent up in Providence and growing up in North Carolina, I have great respect for this part of the country because I’ve always said people here understand basketball at the highest level.
Every year we do talk about how can we get to New York. Obviously we played in Brooklyn earlier this year against Maryland. But coming a year ago, I think they know it’s a special place. They certainly know what playing in the Garden is about. Certainly with Allan Houston being here and being a part of it, I know they’re excited about being here.”
On if this is his first postseason game here since he was a Providence
“I think it is. I think the only time I was in postseason was during the Big East Tournament back in the day, if that’s considered postseason. But yeah, I don’t think we’ve been up here for an NCAA game.”
On if he has a relationship with Kansas State coach Jerome Tang
“Well, in one year, what can you say other than he’s been terrific. He’s done a terrific job, and certainly a great story was Keyontae Johnson. He was in our league and had his incident. But for his comeback, he’s been, I think, a great story for college basketball.
Yeah, I’ve known Jerome, and he’s obviously had a big hand in what went on at Baylor in terms of building that program. And again, from all that time, he certainly understands the Big 12 and what it’s about, and how can you — again, it’s a tremendous job, to have a first year there, which I think they were not picked to finish very high, and for him to get them to this point is really a great job by he and his staff.”
On the job Rodney Terry has done this season at Texas
“Rodney has done a tremendous job. Rodney was with me for a long time while I was there, and I have the utmost respect for him. And you look at the situation, the way it unfolded, and for him to get the respect — I know they respected him in the role that he was in as the associate head coach. But for him to slide over and the way he’s handled it with an older group of guys, I’m not sure anyone else in the country could have done it any better.
And for them to be where they are is, again, another great compliment to Rodney and his staff. And he would tell you that it’s not just him, but the leadership that he’s gotten there from the university, as well. But he’s done an outstanding job.”
On Tennessee’s women’s basketball team also making the Sweet 16
“Well, I think it really starts with our administration. In my eight years there, we have had some change. But I’ve said before, with what we have with Randy Boyd as our president and Donde Plowman, what she’s done on campus has been phenomenal. Then Danny White has come in and has made as big an impact within two years of anyone I’ve ever seen in terms of the fact that he’s done something to help every sport on that campus. Because he’s a very competitive athletic director. He wants us to be good in everything.
He and his staff, they’ve not just talked about it, they’ve done it. Certainly I’m excited for Kellie. I think she’s got one of those difficult jobs because of the great tradition of our program, but she has done an incredible job. Because I was there before she was, and I saw when she came in how quickly she wanted to build her culture, and she’s done it. They’ve had a tough year with injuries, but for them to be where they are right now, again, she and her staff have a lot to be commended for.”
On what he’s learned about Florida Atlantic
“Well, they certainly catch your attention early in the year when they went to Florida and won at Florida, something we didn’t do. Any program, team that wins 33 games, I don’t care what league you’re in, because it’s hard. All jobs are hard and difficult jobs, but for them to go through that, the first word that would come to my mind is consistency, because to do that day in and day out, knowing that they became the team that everybody was wanting to beat and gear up for. And you look at their team, they’re smart, they know each other well, great concepts on the offensive end, very sound defensively, and they should be a very highly confident team, because again, you win 33 games, it speaks volumes. No doubt all that they’ve done, they’ve earned it.”
On the amount of injuries Tennessee has had this season
“Well, really, we often say that throughout our lifetime, that I haven’t seen anything like this, but this year in terms of the key injuries that we had. In talking to Chad Newman, I asked him, in your 28 years at Tennessee have you gone through anything like this, and he said, not with key individuals at key times of the season. What I would say is I think that our players have a lot that they should be proud about. And just the fact that — we felt it. I would be not honest with you if I didn’t tell you that you felt — me as a coach felt the tension that was going on. But yet wanting to make sure our guys believed if we could go out and keep doing what we do and trust in what we’ve done up to this point that some way, somehow it would work out. And I think we all had to some way, somehow rely on our own personal faith in what we’re going to try to get through it. Because it was difficult. It really was.
I think we all had to figure out how to handle it in our own way. But the fact is I’m really proud of — and I’ve used the word — these guys being resilient because they have been. We thought going into the Arkansas game that we were going to be able to hit our stride at the right time, and obviously early in the game Zakai got hurt and we were playing at home and certainly rode that emotion through that win. At that point we knew it was going to be a little bit different because Zakai was such a big part of our late-game situations, and without him we knew we’d have to find a way to work through that. And these guys have figured it out to a point to get them here. But as a coaching staff, we’re just excited and know we’re blessed to have a group of guys that have bought into each other and bought into what we’ve tried to do.”
On Zakai Zeigler’s injury, him being a New York City kid
“Well, we all feel for him because he’s such a big part. He came in a year ago, and the story is well documented that we spent a week recruiting him at the end of July and he made the commitment to come. He walked on campus five days late and classes had already started. It didn’t take but about two workouts — we actually recruited him with the idea we thought we would redshirt him because we had Kennedy Chandler, who we knew he would probably be a one-and-done player. But after a couple days we knew we couldn’t redshirt him.He brought something within his DNA that really impacted our team in a great way a year ago. I think he’s one of those guys that when you play with him, you have the mindset we’ve got this guy, we’re going to be okay.
So for him not to — but he’s still a part of this. He didn’t travel with us last week because he went through surgery last week, but there’s no way he wasn’t going to come back here and be a part of it. But you do feel for him because he understands — the first question that was asked about the Garden, he understands probably more than anybody in that locker room. But the fact is his personality and who he is, he has an impact on this program, and it looms over the program. There’s no question about that. But we all wish that he were playing. There’s no question about that.”
On three-point shooting percentages being down this tournament
“Well, I do think this: I think there is a great deal of emphasis placed on defense in college basketball now because I think we know we’re dealing with young people where inconsistencies can be a part of it. We all work obviously and we all will tell you that we need guys that can put the ball in the basket. Truth be told, if you ask every coach before every game if you have a concern, he would say, I hope we can make a basket. Because the other things you feel you can control with effort and if you’re locked in with a game plan.
But sometimes you can run the exact play that you want, get the exact shot that you want, and it doesn’t fall for you. But I would have to say most of all, if it’s down, it’s because of the defense, because it’s hard to get baskets. You come down the court — whether we’re playing Louisiana the other night or Duke, can we find a way to score here, can we shake loose and get a good look? And if you do get it, oftentimes I think players are surprised that they’ve got such a good look.
We’re playing a team right now that I think they can lock and load that thing as quick as anybody we’ve played all year. And knowing that anybody that you play is capable of having one of those nights, I hope we can break our trend and keep shooting it. I think we can. I think we’re a good shooting team. I do think defense probably has as much to do with it as anything.”
On how Santiago Vescovi has stepped up in Zeigler’s absence
“Well, what he’s done, he’s a very versatile player. He impacts winning without ever scoring a basket. He is a guy that has played point before, four years ago when we were going really through a transition in our program, he and Josiah James as freshmen had to play the point, and they certainly weren’t ready to do it at that point in time, but they had to. They had to figure that out.
Santi is great with moving without the ball, and he’s great at — I’ve said before, I don’t know if anybody has been guarded any harder than he has been guarded all year long. People literally won’t leave him. He’s learned how to — he’s a very smart player. He knows how to set back screens and get his teammates open. What he’s done as much as anything is how he’s impacted the game on the defensive end. He went from a guy early in his career that people literally went after every game, to where now he’s been on the all defensive team and does what he does because he understands the game and how to impact winning.”
On if age isn’t as big of a deal for coaches as it used to be
“That’s a great question. You know, I think we all know when we’ve had enough. Like people ask me oftentimes what goes through your mind? And I think if I ever got to the point where I didn’t look forward to going to practice — and I have great respect for Jim Boeheim, and I got to spend some time with him this summer. And he — when I was with him, I thought if he wanted to, he could coach five more years because he’s out recruiting, he’s doing what we have to do at certain times of the year.
I think it gets back to individual personalities and how you feel and where you think you are with it. I’m not surprised about Coach Pitino. He loves coaching basketball. I think guys that stay in it for a long time, I think it’s a love of the game. I think they enjoy it. I’ve said often, the best job in America is when you can get up every day with young people who have great dreams and you want to help them work towards those goals and they’re willing to buy into the things that you need to do that you can help them with.
But I don’t know if I would say — I don’t think you can put age on it. I think it gets back to individual personalities and where they are at that point in time in their career and their life in terms of what they see themselves doing. I would say this: A lot of coaches that I know that quit early made the comment they wish they would have stayed with it. I think at one time there is — there is a shelf life for everybody, but I think people thought when you got to your mid 60s it was time to be finished. And like I said, some people that did do that, they’ve said they wished they would have kept going.”