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Everything Tennessee Basketball Coach Rick Barnes At SEC Media Days

Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes made his way to Birmingham Wednesday morning with his Preseason All-SEC guard duo Zakai Zeigler and Santiago Vescovi.

Barnes answered questions from the league’s media on the big stage and met shortly with the local media to answer questions more specific to his team.

The ninth-year Tennessee coach discussed the health of his team, growth of a pair of freshmen, being picked to win the SEC and the status of the conference as a whole.

Here’s everything Rick Barnes said at SEC Media Days on Tuesday morning.

More From RTI: Zakai Zeigler ‘Doing Some Things In Half Court’ With Tennessee Basketball

Barnes with local media

On what needs to happen between now and Tennessee’s scrimmage at Michigan State in two weeks
“I think right now where we are, it would be getting our younger guys to understand more and where we stay, what they’re getting ready to get into, and hopefully they understand how hard they’ve gotta play and how important each possession is. But we just need, as you watch practice now, you can see the older guys are starting to continue to take it up each day. It’s all new for those (new) guys. They’ve gotta follow suit and do the same thing.”

On the health of the Tennessee team right now aside from Zakai Zeigler

“No, we don’t (have everyone available). Cam (Carr) hit his head the other day. He’s in concussion protocol, so we’re doing some things in half court with Zakai, but he hasn’t gone up and down with us any yet. And he’s doing well. We’re just going to err on being cautious with him. But we haven’t had the whole team together to do what we would call what everybody does together. We haven’t had that all year, and we’ll get to it at some point. But, I think as a coaching staff, we’re all happy that we’ve got a group of guys that, they’re trying and it’s tough when you don’t have the subs in practice when you’re trying to assimilate scrimmage games. And what scrimmages, in terms of how hard you want to play in scrimmages, but you don’t have subs. But overall they’re making strides.”

On how much the time out hurt freshman forward JP Estrella (fractured finger) and how healthy he is at this point

“I think from a conditioning standpoint, he probably surprised all of us. I think that he would tell you that Garrett (Medenwald) did a great job with him, keeping him there. Obviously understanding execution and where he needs to be and how quickly he needs to get there. He, lagged back on that. But I would say we’re probably more surprised where he is than where we thought he would be because, he does some really good things for us. But his conditioning, he still has to learn to play harder, quicker, faster, and move. But we expect them to get there and get there quickly.”

On what they’ve seen from Tennessee’s scrimmage this preseason

“Well each one of them has been a little bit different because we are starting to try to mix some teams right now to start thinking about our rotations. When we start getting the whole team together, how do we want to sub? Can we put this (together)? What does this group look like together? So we’re doing more of that right now. And when you do that, when you had a group of guys that have played together for a week or so, you can tell they’ve got a little bit of a rhythm. But we gotta do that more with different lineups. And some of it we can’t do it because of guys that you go into a practice thinking that today we’re gonna do this, but like Cam being out set it back a little bit, Zakai not being out there. Where does all that come into play? But we are trying to just mix lineups and see how different guys play together.”

On how much the Tennessee coaching staff likes to decide on the rotation before the season starts or if it’s something you work on during the non-conference schedule

“I think we all want to have it somewhat of a general idea of our substitution patterns, but it can change too. But we haven’t been able to get real close to that because of just not having everybody in practice with us.”

On how Tennessee freshman forward Cade Phillips has progressed

“You know, I do think that the freshmen, this is the time of year, the grind of the preseason, because it’s going right now. I do think they’ve struggled a little bit. The older guys can handle it. They physically can handle it. This is the hardest thing. This is the hardest thing that these guys have gone through in terms of the level of work, the intensity every day, the physicality of it, but they’ve all done well. But they’re all, the old saying, you hit the wall, they’ve gotta figure out how to get pushed through it.”

On Tennessee being picked to win the SEC in the preseason media poll

“Well, one, I think when you pick (teams), you start the season, I think there’s a tendency to probably to go with older guys. And I think when you look at our league now, I do think depth wise, this league is old and I think it will be the most competitive year that the SEC’s ever had because, you can make a case nine or 10 teams, much improved. But you look at the returnees, I think that’s what pretty much people go on and it’s there, it’s what it is.

On if Zakai Zeigler will take part in Tennessee’s scrimmage at Michigan State on October 29

“We haven’t thought about it yet. He’s doing his part. He has from day one. But again, he hasn’t done anything with us up and down the court yet. And it’s really, to me it’s day to day. And Chad (Newman) and Garrett (Medenwald) have done a great job with him. And I mean, if you ask him, obviously he would tell you he wants to be be ready and play to play. But again, when we get there, we’ll decide. But I don’t think we’ve really set a date yet because we’re gonna err on the caution side of it.

“And he understands that. As much as he’s chomping at the bit to get going, he knows that we’re going to look at it from a long haul situation. And he’ll be good with it because he trusts his teammates and he know they’ve worked hard. And when he gets back, he knows that he can help us. Obviously he changes the floor every time he’s out there, but we’re going to take care of him physically first.”

On how much it has helped Tennessee’s other guards to handle the ball through the offseason with Zakai Zeigler

“I do think that’s been the emphasis where we want guys, where we’ve worked on different guys getting the ball going with it and get us going with our offense. And I think it certainly, with Zakai being out, Freddie (Dilione) and Jordan Ganey, those guys have had to play that. Jahmai (Mashack), Santi (Vescovi has) done it. Obviously we’ve got a lot of guys that have done it. The young guys are the ones that really, Jordan and Freddie are the ones that are having to really learn the system and understand that when they are at the point, it’s their job to get it started.
But we all would have preferred Zakai to be out there because he would’ve helped them even further along with it. But they’ve done okay with it. And they’re young to it and it takes some time to really learn what we’re trying to get done.”

Barnes on the big stage

On the benefit of having experienced seniors, Arkansas guard Devo Davis

“Well, it’s awesome to have older guys. I go back last year when certainly Josiah and Santi were going through the process and wanting to know what they might end up doing, wondering what they might end up doing. I thought about the young guys, knowing it would be a major turnover with what we had lost. With those guys coming back, it’s really neat in practice watching them along with Josiah, Zakai, Santi and Jahmai Mashack coach those guys. You really think about it, these younger guys get a chance every day to practice against a team that pretty much went to the Sweet 16 last year. But it’s neat watching ’em do it. I think it’s a huge advantage when you have older guys. I would tell you I hope we always have older guys. We still believe in what we try to do with our player development. Getting old, staying old, I think is really important. You look at our league this year, this is an old league. It’s an athletic league. It’s a skilled league now. I think it’s the best basketball league in the country.”

You mentioned Devo Davis, obviously a super basketball player, a guy that gets your attention real quick when you talk about it. But he along with his teammates, when you get ready for this league, it’s hard to focus on one guy on any team because the quality of talent has grown so much the past couple years. I do think it’s going to be the most competitive year the SEC has had, certainly since I’ve been in it.”

On Santiago Vescovi returning, where he’s improved

“Again, talking to him… He has meant so much to our program. He came in, along with Josiah, at a time when we were somewhat in a transition. Lamonte Turner was a guy that was really our best player at the time. He abruptly had to end the season with an injury. Santi walked on campus thinking he was going to probably be redshirted. He practiced two days, played against LSU. I think he hit five threes in that game. He’s totally transformed his body. He and Josiah went through a lot that first year, which I think has helped them both grow tremendously and players and people.

What Santi does every day, he’s going to give you his best effort every day. He runs more than any other player I’ve ever seen in the halfcourt. We’re talking about getting down the floor quick, but he runs so much more in the halfcourt than any other player I’ve ever coached. Not one part of his game he hasn’t tried to get better with. What I would tell you, it’s amazing to me where he started as a defensive player and where he is today. I mean, he’s going to take on any challenge. We’re not afraid to switch with him at any position because he’s going to fight and do what he needs to do.

He’s in elite condition. He’s the one guy that I don’t want him to have to play as many minutes as he played last year, but he’s a guy that could play that and more if he had to. Hopefully these younger guys can figure it out so we can use that depth, rest him. Hope at the end of the year he’ll have a lot more left than he has the last couple years because he’s had to play so much.”

On Kentucky having eight freshmen

“Did he get some older guys in the portal?”

Reporter: Senior and a junior. Two sophomores and eight freshmen

“It’s tough when you’re there. Like, again, I’ve got a great coaching staff, but I’ve got five guys that know what we’re trying to get done out there that can help do it. If you don’t have that, it does make it more difficult. The word that John probably doesn’t like, like any other coach, is ‘patience’. You have to be really patient when you have that many young guys because you want to see ’em get better every day. Most young guys will have a good day, maybe next day not so much. If you tell them they’ve had a good day, you can almost bet it’s not going to be as good the next day. He has to balance a lot of different things, anytime you’re coaching young guys, but knowing you have to get them to do a couple things well early, whereas with an older group, you can get a lot more done early in the year compared to the younger guys. We would all tell you talent is a good thing to have. He certainly has that. But he’s a terrific coach. Our league’s got terrific coaches. I do know this. In this league, every team where we start, where they start, will be better at the end of the year because of the level of coaching in this league.”

On Bill Justus

“I did get the fortune to meet Bill. He loved Tennessee, he loved the Volunteers. He loved the basketball program. We all know he was a great basketball player. I got a call, text, from Bert Bertelkamp  a couple weeks ago and Mark Griffin telling me he wasn’t doing well. I did try to reach out to him and get him, but I couldn’t. I left a message. It’s just sad because we lost a great one, a great human being, but we also lost a great Volunteer.”

On what have been the challenges for Tobe learning to play the five and how has he grown over the off-season?

“I thought this summer, experience with USA Basketball is really good for him. He thought that helped him confidence-wise, a lot of different areas. Tobe only knows one way to play. He’s going to go all out. Learning the different coverages, he is continuing to do that. Our ball screen packages, the different things that we do.

Again, he’s a player that we’re not afraid to switch with. He’s quick. He’s agile. He has great mobility. He’s going to play hard. The guys will tell you they love him. They would tell you they don’t particularly want to go against him in practice because he sets screens, probably three quarters of them are illegal, but he hits. Sometimes he does it not even knowing he’s doing it. He’s going to be a big part. He, Jonas and J.P. Estrella, those guys, are going to be really important to us up on that front line. I tell you, everybody on our team will tell you we’re glad that Tobe is wearing the orange and white because he’s a guy that just goes at it every day.”

On new Ole Miss coach Chris Beard

“When Chris was with Coach Knight at Tech, really we were — Texas and Texas Tech staff were close with each other. Chris obviously went to Texas, did an unbelievable job at Texas Tech. Did a great job at Texas. He was building that program, putting his footprint there, wanting it to get done.

He will do an outstanding job. I don’t care where he’s coaching, he’s going to do an outstanding job. He got a great staff. He’s done what I think coaches have been around, they know how to put a staff together quickly. I know they did a really good job on the portal, waiting to see a couple more guys they can get eligible. Chris is going to do a great job.”

On player retention year to year

“I think now when you recruit young guys, I think you almost have to look at it through a two-year window. If they’re not playing for you by their sophomore year, they’re probably thinking about maybe I should go somewhere else. As much as you hate to see that happen, we sometimes lose a guy that we don’t want to lose knowing they’re going to have a chance their third and fourth year to be a major impact in the program.With that said, we have to keep up with what’s going on, our staff does. You used to worry about the opponents you’re playing, but with the portal being what it is and knowing that now has shrunk, and if you’re in postseason playing you are going to have to be organized, knowing that while you’re playing games, you’re going to have to be aware of the portal, trying to get started there.

We’ve had some grad transfers last year, we’re really excited about the guys we got out of the portal this past year. They’re going to be impact players. They’re going to help us a lot. But from a coaching staff standpoint, from the time the season starts, we have to keep our eye on all that and work at it knowing that at the end of the year we need to add to our roster, we got to be ready to go do that.”

On his biggest takeaways from FAU and San Diego State’s run to the Final Four

“It’s what I’ve said forever. I think there’s enough players in the country for everybody. I think you got to find the ones that fit your system, buy into what you’re trying to coach. Through the years we’ve all seen a lot of different things happen in the NCAA tournament, seedings is important, all those type of things.

I’ll be quite honest, I thought when we got our draw, I thought it was a good draw for us. The two teams I thought we would have a difficult time with if we ended up facing them would Florida Atlantic, and then Memphis, and Fairleigh Dickinson without Zakai. We knew their style of play would be aggressive, putting a lot of pressure on the guards. I think we’re more suited to play any style this year than we’ve probably been to play in a long time with different guys out there. With that said, you get in a tournament, seedings matter, we all know you got to catch some luck here or there. I just think there’s so much parity, I think the portal is going to do that now, too. I think you’re going to see guys, you can never take getting into the tournament for granted. You got to get there. When you get there, I think we’ve all seen enough to know if you get going, anything can happen.

I think you’ll see more of that. But the transfer portal is going to make a difference, it is, in terms of what might happen in post-season. If you can play this game, can you play it. There’s a lot of players out there that go unnoticed but can really play. All you got to do is look at NBA rosters. There’s a lot of guys out there that people haven’t heard about that can play. I think it’s going to show up more in the years to come because of where we are with our game right now.”

On the challenge of projecting the league with all the roster movement

“Well, again, I think you go back, like we’ve always felt that it benefits us by playing a hard non-league schedule. We believe that. You get ready for conference play, once you get there now we all know each other, obviously, because we play against each other, and Tennessee’s are pretty much in place by then. The fact is, I’ve said from a non-league standpoint, winning 20 games doesn’t matter. That’s not going to get you into the post-season. Strength of schedule, who you play, how you develop is what’s going to happen. When you get into conference play, there’s not a coach in this league or any league in the country that will look, I don’t care who they’re playing, I don’t care if they’re playing a team that has won three games in their building, I don’t think there’s a coach that thinks they’re going to go in there and it’s going to be easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. The way this league has grown over the last couple years, the depth in it, it’s going to be a dogfight, it is. Then obviously injuries, players staying healthy, all that comes into play.

But it will be, and then I’m hoping what we go through in non-league, somebody was asking me about being ranked, within the first week of the season you go into Maui, which is in Honolulu now, you can come out of there, really good teams, with two losses or more. It’s just tough. We want to be in those situations, thinking long-term it helps us get better. Players want to play those schedules. I can tell you that. My guys tell me that all the time, they want to go in and play as many big games as they can play. They would probably tell you they’re not great fans of bye games, but we know we have to do that, too. Even those bye games, those guys can play because what we were talking about with the portal, we’ll play some teams this year that have a whole new roster that we don’t even know about.

Every game is important. You hear that, but it is. You can’t afford to stump your toe at any point in time because you get into March, you’re on that bubble for some reason, wherever you are, anything you do in November can come back and cost you. You just can’t let that happen. You got to be ready from the get-go.”

On his reaction to the media picking Tennessee to win the league

“I don’t know that I had much of a reaction, to be quite honest. I think it’s a compliment obviously. Certainly it’s a compliment to our players, our program. It’s fun. I think it’s a fun time of year. Yesterday I had three or four people around Knoxville come up and congratulate me. I honestly didn’t know what they were talking about till somebody told me. I think those polls are obviously for the media and the fan bases to do that. You got to go win games. Again, you embrace it. I mean, I hope we’re that good. I really do. I really do hope we’re that good and better.

We’ll always be more concerned with what we do day to day in practice, getting ready for each game. Like I said, I tell our guys once we walk on the floor and once way start playing our first game, every game is a 19 tournament game if you want to get there. Whether you’re picked to win it, I guess when you’re picked to win a league, you’re ranked, you have a big bull’s-eye on your back. You have to embrace that, know if you really embrace it, you’re going to get better every night. That’s the key from now, how much better can we get from now till the end of basketball season.”

On mid major stars adjusting to power five

“First of all, when I say I want to get old, we’re really excited about our freshman class. We think that class is going to win a lot of games for us. We’re really excited. I think when you think about the portal, you go into it, obviously, to address direct needs that you feel like you need to answer. I don’t know if you can know that until you get there. I’ve said that about recruits, players. Until you live with someone every day, you’re with them, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get out of them.

I can tell you of our two transfer guys, Dalton Knecht and Jordan Gainey, we’re excited. Do I think we helped ourselves by bringing those guys into our program? Absolutely, 100%. We needed to improve our shooting, develop our skills. We needed to improve guys that can create their own shots when it gets down to late clock. I think those guys will help us do that. The fact they’re experienced, like going through this time of year right now, you can see where young guys struggle right now a little bit because we’re really in the dog days right now, the hardest time of the year practice-wise.

Guy started out, done a great job. You can tell in the last couple days, they’ve wavered a little bit whereas those guys, they haven’t missed a beat. They’re continuing to climb with the older guys. That’s another by-product of the portal, getting older guys, they’ve been through the grind of it. Most of those guys probably were high-level players. Jordan Gainey led the nation in three-point shooting as a freshman, last year had a big target on his back. He knows what it is like to be guarded every night. High-level scorer that teams game plan for. Both of those guys being here going against our team every day, two guys, three guys that can really defend, has helped them.

They certainly know there is a standard we want to get them to from the defensive standpoint, that they’ve got to get there for us. I think with each guy that you bring in, really and truly you’re not sure totally until you get with him and get into the grind of this time of year and see how it’s going to work out.”

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