Tennessee basketball didn’t play its best game but still did enough to outlast Syracuse and defeat the Orange 73-56 in its Maui Invitational opener on Monday afternoon.
The Vols trailed for most of the first half before ending the half on a run that gave them the lead. The run extended into the second half and while Syracuse never went away, they never cut Tennessee’s lead to less than three points.
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes and players Josiah-Jordan James and Jonas Aidoo met with the media in Honolulu after the game. Here’s what the trio had to say.
“Really tough hard-fought game. I’m really, really proud of our older group at the end when we had some different situations. Turned it over in ways that we normally shouldn’t. But I thought our older guys, guys that had been in a lot of big games. Josiah was terrific today, rebounding. He and Jonas came up big on the glass. But our older guys defensively were locked in, did a lot of really good things for us. I think we know we can be better on the offense, but it’s the way I thought we kept our composure and through some tough situations for us. But we did some things that are out of character, but (Syracuse) had a lot to do with that too. They really are very aggressive with getting in the passing lanes, tipping the ball back, tipping all that. But really nice win for us.”
On Dalton Knecht carrying the offense in the first half, defense stepping up without him
“The older guys have been through it a lot and we have won a lot of games through the years with our defense and not always makes it look pretty, but we’ve done it. I think our guys have— we’ve got some guys individually that we think have great pride in trying to guard one-on-one with guarding the players who can really go get back buckets for you and we rely on each other. We’re not asking one guy to stop one guy, even though we’re going to— we’ve got a couple guys that we think can really create situations for guys to score.
But if we play together, we think we can make it tough for people to score. But the older group out there, when Dalton went out and Jordan, they went at Jordan Gainey early there. They were going at him and I don’t think he’s ever been in that situation. But once we go back to the guys that were there, they’ve been in a lot of games like that where we strictly had to rely on our defense to get things done. And then I thought they did a great job offensively when they went zone. And we actually had five guards out there. And because of Josiah, we can do that because he will take on the challenge and he’s so strong that he can guard pretty much anyone out there. And we’re not afraid to switch one through five, but we do think that those guys, those guys especially, they’ve been around, they’re going to really have each other’s back and make what we call fix it plays. But, I thought we did as good a job as we thought that they would have to do for us defensively. They went to it on the offensive end, and they did a pretty good job there.”
On what challenges Syracuse coach Adrian Autry presented
“Well, I’ve said people through the years that Jim Boeheim got a lot of credit for his defense. I don’t think he ever got the credit he deserved for his offense. I would say the same thing that as we prepared for them. I think that when you were a player, as good as a player as Adrian.Those guys, I mean, he puts them in position to where they can really— they’re hard to guard and he wants them to be aggressive. He wants them to attack.”
“Just keeps, I think, somewhat simple, which I think is great coaching. He does what coaches should do. He gives players a chance to win because he puts them where they can do what they do best. Defensively we knew they were going to play some zone. We knew they would do that at some point in time. He, I thought, picked a good spot there when Dalton was out and he was going see what we could do with that older lineup, who in the past people would question their scoring ability. We felt it coming. We knew that would happen when we made that decision to go with five guards. We trust our older guys that make plays. Jahmai Mashack’s offensive rebound was a big play. That’s a huge play at that point in time in terms of momentum. But he’s gonna be a great coach. He was a great player. Just getting ready for him, watching him, they’re sound in every way. He’s going to be around the game a long time. He’s going to win a lot of basketball games. Syracuse certainly made the right decision because he’s the right guy to hand it off to.”
On Syracuse’s guards
“Well, we wanted to pick up early and we wanted to really try to not let them get going downhill because they, they really do get going hard. They’re not gonna stop themselves if you don’t get into gaps early and get early gap support, they’re going to get there because they’re well-coached. They play angles great. They can finish. It’s tough too when they have the ability to jump up and kind of sort of throw their body forward. It’s tough to guard that. It really is. It’s the rules. It’s just tough to guard. We wanted to early, we actually doubled the ball screen a few times, but we felt like we got stretched out. He made a great pass. I know they hit a big three in the corner where he just made a terrific play. We let him out of the trap and he hook passed it in the corner right where it needed to be and the guy nailed it. We started kind of trying to fake-double it a little bit to just try to slow him down and keep it contained on the perimeter back and forth. Then he made a really great play and we put Santi on because Santi is a really good defender. We knew Santi would work hard to try to keep him from catching the ball and he went over and set like a little fixed screen and lay up he made. Just well-coached. They know what they’re doing there. But the biggest thing was early gap. Early gap and trying to keep them from getting downhill with it. Really wanted to work hard at trying to keep them off the foul line.”
On the potential of playing No. 2 Purdue or No. 11 Gonzaga
“I haven’t thought a lot about ’em. I’ve kind of always been able to just think about this one, but the coaching staff obviously had all these teams here scouted before we got here, and they’ll get to see ’em live here. But I’ve seen ’em enough to know Mark (Few) forever. You know, we used to scrimmage every year I was at Providence. Mark and I would meet in Denver and somewhere in Arizona. We’d meet in scrimmage for probably 15 years. So we’ve known each other for a long time. A great friend, a great basketball coach and has done one of the great, great jobs in all of college sports and what he’s done and built at Gonzaga.
“And then Matt Painter, I mean, he’s a big time coach, you know. Obviously got a great basketball player and (Zach) Edey’s development is really impressive. I mean, I go back and watch him where he started and where he is. And I think like all of us, we’ve tried to add through the portal that we hope will help us. And I said it coming in, these games are gonna help us all some way, somehow. Like today we did some uncharacteristic things. I don’t think I’ve ever coached a team with a guy stepped out of bounds four times, one player three times. And I can’t explain it because he hadn’t done it before. But the fact is both of those programs are great programs and great tradition. We know that whoever we have to play, we’re have to be ready.
On where he would like to see his team improve
“Shooting wise, we’re a good shooting team. I mean, some nights they go, some nights they don’t. But I told the guys from the very beginning when we knew this year we’re gonna probably shoot more threes than we have, what would happen on nights when we weren’t making threes, or we weren’t getting the clean, quality looks that we want? How can we play the game? And obviously rebounding is a big part of it. I still want guys to take shots when they get it. But I thought we were, maybe the words careless. I don’t know. I mean, some of the turnovers that we had, but really proud of the fact that we rebounded the ball. And I said coming in, we always pride ourselves, you can’t be a great defensive team if you can’t finish it with a rebound. If you’re gonna give the teams multiple shots at it, you’re not gonna be a great defensive team.
“And on the other end, you need to rebound about 40% of your misses if you want to be a high level offensive team. And so we’ve talked about it, and in our games leading into this, I thought we had done okay. And last game, we made a better effort at home going to the glass, but it was with no purpose. I thought today was more of a little purpose-driven approach to where we knew we had to rebound the ball and the fact that we count on our guards to do it, too. We want our guards to get in there and mix it up, and all five guys pursue the ball.
“But there’s a lot of things we’re gonna have to get better with, obviously this time of year. But the main thing would be the turnovers. We gotta clean that up. I mean, the unforced ones, we can’t have.”
On if Tennessee was ready for that physical of a game
“I would definitely say we were ready and, you know, it starts with the way we prepare and practice. A lot of people don’t know, but if you come and watch us practice, you know that we were more than prepared for that type of game, that type of physicality. And I was really proud of our guys in the way we handled it.”
On what Syracuse did that challenged Tennessee’s offense
“I would say just their aggressiveness. Being in the passing lanes on the ball. We knew that they would probably have to go zone a little bit and their zone is a little bit unorthodox. They like to pressure the ball, they kind of want you to force the ball to the high post and then try to make you make quick decisions out of that. But just their aggressiveness on the ball.”
On Tennessee out rebounding Syracuse in the second half
“I would just say doing what we practice And we do that on a daily basis. We’re pride ourselves on offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding.”
On defending Judah Mintz
“Well, first, it was getting up to the ball screens for me. And we know he pump-faked a a lot to get to the free-throw line. So it was staying disciplined on that part.”
On Tennessee out rebounding Syracuse
“I would say Coach (Barnes) preaches rebounding the ball. That’s the main thing. If we rebound the ball, we’re pretty much gonna win the game, so we just gotta be aggressive all the time, offensively and defensively.”
On what Tennessee did defensively to cause Syracuse scoring droughts
“The main thing was scouting report. You know, we got great coaches to scout the other teams, so it was basically paying the scout report. We just played by that. Just played hard. We knew it was gonna be a tough, gritty game and we just played by that.”