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Everything Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes Said After The Vols’ Season Opening Win

Photo By Andrew Ferguson/ Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee basketball opened up its 2023-24 season with an 80-42 victory over Tennessee Tech at Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center.

The Vols struggled early offensively before ending the first half on an extended 32-6 run that opened up the massive spread.

Ninth year head coach Rick Barnes discussed the offense’s shaky start, the play of Tennessee’s newcomers and much more. Here’s everything Barnes said following the win.

More From RTI: Three Quick Takeaways From Tennessee Basketball’s Season Opening Win Over Tennessee Tech

On getting Tennessee point guard Zakai Zeigler back on the floor

“Well, I think what it was after the game when I walked in, Josiah said coach, we gotta give the guy the game ball because he said he’s the heart and soul team. And he is. And it was hard on him. He wants to play so much and he wanted to play for the longest time, as you can imagine. But he knew he was gonna be limited to minutes, but he changes the floor every time he gets out there. He changes the floor on both ends of the court, whether it’s offense, defense. We’ll be curious to see how he responded. I mean, he’s responded great in practice. He’s actually done more in practice than he did the game tonight. He’s responded well to that, but we just, again, we said all along we’re gonna be cautious with him and we’ll get a good read from what he did tonight and see how everything is, from going stop and starting and all that, sitting on the bench halftime, we haven’t been able to see that. We’ll see.”

On what he liked about Tennessee’s offense in the win

“Well, I thought earlier we, honestly, I thought we turned down some open shots. I mean, I think the coaches did a good job with the scout after just one game and get what you can. And we knew they were going to change some defenses and fall back and slow down a little bit. There’s gonna be some nights when — what did we shoot from the three tonight? — we’re gonna make more probably shots than we did, but we gotta do a better job rebounding our misses, even if we’re shooting the three ball. We gotta do a better job. And inside, we’ve been working hard trying to get more things done inside, and I think we’re gonna be able to get better there, I do. And I think we will, but I wanna see us rebound the ball better offensively.

But I thought the effort, I thought our guys were really trying to do the things we practice, which is what we were looking for. The effort from our younger guys I thought was really good. And being in a situation like this, we probably played Santi and Josiah a little bit more in the first half we probably would like. And Santi getting back to you knew that had a really good rhythm going, leaving from the time he did, he’ll get it back quick and he’ll do that. But again, there are some good takeaways from it, but we’ll have to get better.”

On if he thinks Santiago Vescovi can find that rhythm again before Tennessee’s game Friday night at Wisconsin

“Well, he’ll have to because we know those guys have been in it. It’s gonna be a totally different type of basketball game, obviously. Great deal of respect for Wisconsin, how they play. And they’ve got some older guys, veteran guys and will be a good team. They’re a good team. They’ll be right in the thick of it, the Big 10. And Greg Gard does a great job with his guys. And it’s really terrific arena to play in. They’ve got a great fan base.And early the year like this, I mean, there’s gonna be some teams that like ourselves that, with this and then (the Maui Invitational) and all that, you could have some losses early and still be one of the best teams in the country because we’re all … tonight’s the first day that we’ve had everybody together.

This is the first time we’ve had (everyone) because Cade (Phillips) wasn’t with us in the summer. And ‘Z’  coming back right now. 

So, if you could asked about a rotation, I don’t know. I know that we played a lot of different variations tonight that we think we can’t play, but how it’s going to shake out how I really don’t know.”

On holding Tennessee Tech to under 30% shooting from her field 

“I thought we were good. I thought our ball pressure caused problems. But you know what, it’s very hard for a team like that to simulate the length that we have and we can put out there. I thought in the second half, and I told John this, they really do really good stuff. They have good schemes. He’s a terrific coach. And they settled in the second half. I mean, they settled in, they started driving the ball with more of a force and got us off our feet and we reached in. Now we did do a great job of, once they started just driving the ball, getting in the gap quicker.

But we’re so attuned playing ourselves that we try to defend that 3-point line. But again, I thought they kept doing what they’re gonna do, but our defense was good, obviously. And does it have to get better? It has to get better.”

On how they approach working Zakai Zeigler’s minutes up

“I’m gonna listen to (trainer) Chad (Newman) and (strength coach) Garrett (Medenwald), our doctors, they’ve talked about it. They’re telling me when to take him in and out which is hard on me because I know I want him out there a lot. But I also love him to death. And we all do. And again, he feels like he’s ready to go at it all the time. And we’ll see, depending on what type of game am I might have a deaf ear, not hear them, you know. Depending what it is. Because he is a comfort. I mean, the blanket where you know that he’s going, like I said, change the floor, but really, seriously, we’re gonna do what’s right by him. But like I said, I don’t know if he’s coming in here or not, but he thinks he’s ready to go.”

On why they decided not to redshirt freshman Cade Phillips

“He did it himself. The fact that he, Cade, brings us a different type of frontline player. He’s a lot stronger than he looks. He’s a guy that, kind of what Santi does on the perimeter, he does inside. He’s gonna get you extra possessions. He’s gonna run down loose balls. He really has gotten good at getting off the ball. He’s a guy that you really can lob the ball to and he’ll go get it, but he understands what we’re trying to get done, and he’ll get better too. I just think all those guys will get better. And the hardest part for the younger guys is playing through fatigue. And it’s really hard. I mean, because in practice you guys have seen it. I have a bad habit of sometimes stopping it too much. So when you get one up and down the floor for two and a half minutes or three minutes non stop, it just is tough. And the older guys can do it. The younger guys are learning how to do it.”

On coaching without assistant Rod Clark

“Rod, he’s a big part of the staff and this program and— I’ve got a great, I think I’ve got the best coaching staff in the country and I could tell you my feelings about the whole deal, but I won’t. But the fact is, Rod’s a big, he’s a big part of it. What we do here. But we’ll adjust. They would adjust without me on the bench. But again, I think that our players have so much respect for our coaching staff, and so if I had to miss a game. They would, our guys, would know what we need to do. I’ve got so much confidence in our older guys and tonight, I mean, they know what’s going on, they know what it’s about. But Rod, he’ll be back, I guess after the Utah (Wisconsin) game. He’s a big part of what we’re about here.”

On college basketball changing, spacing the floor with shooting

“Well, those shooters, if that ball goes in, it makes it all look pretty. I can tell you that. And we knew that we had to improve that from a year ago. And obviously Dalton and Jordan Gainey bring us that. Both of those guys do have the ability to create their own shot and get a shot off the ball with the clock going down. But I think all of our guys have improved, and I think I’ve said it before, I think it may take shots that we practice and their feet are set and they all have the ability to make shots and I think we’ve got some skill. We had a couple of really good passes. I think we had improved on the passing from a year ago. We still got get better with it. But we want to play with some speed. That teams are gonna try to slow you down. We’re try to— and the way we play defense, we can put teams in long possessions, but on the other end, we can’t score quick. So it’s like, okay, we play defense for 30 seconds and go down and only play offense for 10 to 12 seconds. Sometimes you wonder if we’re complimenting each other, but we think we are. But I particularly don’t want to play against the set defense every time down the floor. We get out and get an advantage early, get the right guys in position to score the ball before the defense can get set. But with that said, we have to rebound the ball better. We have to run down those long misses and we’re going have to sometimes play inside out. We need to get fouled more. How many free throws did we shoot? (10). Yeah, that’s not enough. But again, we try not to foul. I’m sure other people aren’t gonna try to foul us either, but as we know it’s the first game for everybody in this. It’s all going to get ratchet up going forward. And we’re gonna have to be creative and do some other things on nights when we’re not making those shots.”

On what he thought of how redshirt-freshman guard Freddie Dilione played

“I would say as a staff, we’re proud of Freddie and what he did. I thought he really, really tried to play defense and offense, he messed with it a little bit too much sometimes, but that’s what he’s starting to figure out now. The game is different, but he’s trying really hard and a player that I just think — again, we were really proud of him in trying to play defense and I thought he tried to play through fatigue. With his length, he’s got a chance to be a complete player, but, it’s again, having to play against or a guy I think will help him.

“But all those young guys, it’s mental. Understanding that the game mentally is equally or really, you know, coach (Bob) Knight used to say it was four times more important than the physical side, which I agree. And that’s probably the hardest thing for young guys to understand the mental side of it. That means detail, being detail oriented. Might be as simple as being in a stance, being alert away from the ball, all those things. That’s where he’s going. I think he’ll continue to get better, but today was by far away, I thought his most effort, productivity on the defensive end.”

On the play of junior guard Jordan Gainey and how he kickstarted the offense in the first half

“That’s a good term. Kickstarted. I thought he did do just that. I thought the first group went in and guys, I do think they turned down a couple shots early and because we talk about not getting stagnant, getting moving and the fact is, sometimes you’re gonna play a game where people are gonna try to encourage you to shoot the first one. But guys that can shoot it, they get that look, they’re gotta shoot it. But Jordan comes in and again, he can shoot it, but he’s more than that. He can score. And Jordan didn’t practice. He was sick today and he didn’t practice yesterday. And Tobe (Awaka) was sick, too. I was really proud of Tobe because he was really struggling before the game. And Jordan, again, didn’t do anything. He was really tired his first run out there. He was really sucking wind and he hasn’t done that, looked like that. But after he got a second wind, I thought he settled in okay. 

“I’m excited if he is the guy that ends up coming off the bench like that. We need that kind of jump start when somebody comes in like that gets us really into a different groove in terms of — but he’s more than a guy that shoot the ball. He’s working hard to be a better defender, learning how to move without the ball. He ran a lot of point. He’s not afraid to do that either.”

On the last time he had a team that can spread the floor offensively the way this one can

“I’m not sure we’ve had one quite like this one here. We can space it. With that said, as time goes on, it’s gonna get down to it being personnel driven. I think teams will start to get into the analytics and they’ll try to force guys a certain way and try to coach them if they shot that shot. I just know we should continue to get better where we can really mesh the two where we shoot it, where we drive mid-range gangs, scoring at all level and putting the ball inside and playing quicker there as opposed to waiting to see what those first guys are doing.

“It’s all about spacing. If we get our spacing, if our big guys will fight for their space goes because they’re going to have some room to operate, we just want ’em to get it where we want ’em to get it. And we don’t particularly want ’em that much off the block with it. But if it’s there, we do think those guys can pass the ball and, we obviously, we think we can space the floor with this group and it’s gonna help us, but again, when we’re open, we gotta shoot it, but we also have to do a much better job of rebounding the ball.”

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