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What Tennessee AC Gregg Polinsky Said Before Vols Trip To Alabama

Photo via Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee assistant coach Gregg Polinsky met with the local media on Friday afternoon before the Vols head to Tuscaloosa to face No. 14 Alabama on Saturday night.

The matchup between the Vols and Crimson Tide has major SEC Championship repercussions. Polinsky discussed the benefits of playing a championship style game in the regular season, Alabama’s growth and more on Friday. Here’s everything the second-year assistant coach said.

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On what the difference has been for Tennessee forward Tobe Awaka in recent games

“I think just level of comfort. Coach talks about all the time being young with his development, but just feeling like he’s getting to his spots on the floor. I think that’s something that coaches stress with Tobe and Tobe has done a good job of trying to figure out where am I effective getting into my moves, playing with better pace, seeing where the help’s coming from or not making decisions with the basketball. I think all that’s improved.”

On how Tennessee’s scout of an opponent changes when its facing a team for a second time 

“Well, they’re a lot better. They were really good when they came here. We played exceptionally well that night. You know, it’s a good question. Like the Texas A&M (game), when any of us had a scout, that turnaround (two weeks) was really quick. Alabama’s been a pretty good gap. So that team has evolved and developed. And I mean we are now talking about, I think this is right, KenPom, which is high-end analytics, right? They are the No. 2 offensive efficiency in terms of rating all time. Not just this year. So what they’ve done is to be noted, to be respected. Offensively this is an elite team. Not just this year, but maybe over the last 20 years of college basketball.”

On taking the success Tennessee had defensively at home against Alabama on the road to Coleman Coliseum

“That’s always the key. Does defense travel? We think it does, but obviously the energy you get playing in Thompson-Boling Arena, Food City Center, is tremendous. You guys saw at the roar of the crowd down the stretch in the last game (against Auburn) was big time. The crowd here just would not allow us to lose that game. And we’ll just have to bow up. I mean that will be, I’m sure, a very vibrant, hostile environment. Lived there nine years. These type of games, they’re what you kind of come here for, go there for, playing in the SEC for. So we’re going to have to bow up and play like a group of grown men.”

On what it means for a Tennessee team to go into a championship environment in a game like this, before the NCAA Tournament

“I think you embrace it as a great opportunity to see where you are from a mentality standpoint, where you are from a maturity standpoint, how you are going to deal with it. How you are going to deal with the runs and the ebbs and flow of a game like this, where there is a lot on the line. Even though we know that there’s two other tough games coming up, but this one right here is going to be because you’re on the road, because you are playing a terrific basketball team. It puts you in a position to, if you’re focused in the right way, to say, hey, this gives us a chance to prepare for a high level NCAA (Tournament) basketball game.”

On how much better this Tennessee team is equipped for the NCAA Tournament because of Dalton Knecht and the improved offensive numbers this season

“I don’t know if last year’s team could have done that (score 92 against Auburn). Well, I think it’s fair to say probably not. Right? Do you remember that? I do. But I will say this, I don’t know that the other team would’ve got 82 or 84, whatever it was. We’re different, no question. The beauty of this team is that it’s still a top-two, -three defensive team in the country and we’re, last I looked, I think 17th offensively in the nation. We weren’t there last year now. And so we are given nights as much as you hate to admit it because you hang your hat on defense to where you have to be really good on offense. Like when are we going to make a stop? Auburn was so good in that game, executing and getting to the line and getting the ball to the right guys in the right spots. That to your point, like we really had to probably win that game on offense, sprinkled in with making some key stops, which we did. But we’re much more equipped to share on a given night to go out there and possibly win a game on offense.” 

On anticipating Alabama mixing up things from the first matchup

“I think their concepts, and we talked about this, and philosophy, the way they play is off of NBA analytics and their schemes are terrific. I mean, what they do, how they do it, their timing, their spacing makes them uniquely difficult and the players they’ve recruited. So none of that works without really good players. And then if you have really good players, none of it works without what I just said. Right? The former. So for us, it’s going to be a great challenge. I think Coach Oats said this here, we (Tennessee) did a good job of staying out of rotations. So if you said a couple things we got to do, we got to do our very best, it’s not going to happen all night. You’re not shutting them out. They’re on a prolific scoring run, you know what they’ve done here in the SEC, but as much as we can do a great job guarding the basketball and then not give them, I think right now they’re all the way up to the fifth best offensive rebounding team in the country. That’s a nasty combination to work with, to defend. So we’ve got our work cut out for us, but I think if we can manage those two things we’ll at least give ourselves a chance to be in the game down the stretch.”

On maintaining strong defensive analytics despite significantly improved offense

“You’d have to talk to Luke Schapker on that and Ken Pom. I think they go off of obviously it’s possessions. There were a lot of possessions in the Auburn game. So you’re right. I mean the more possessions it’s based on steals. It’s based on a whole bunch of different items that they put into the batter to bake the cake. And I think just being able to get steals, get deflections, make key stops, have a mindset of what we want to get done, how we’re going get it done based on the opponent we’re playing is probably helped us as much— And our guys do a good job of paying attention to the scout. We’d have liked it to be a little better the other night. But again, you look at the Auburn team, man, that is a big physical, mature, well coached basketball team.”

On how much easier this time of year is with veteran players

“It’s easier. It’s not easy, but it’s easier because those guys not only can take your scouting report and think it through, I mean there’s times when Josiah or Santi or (Ma)Shack, who you just had here will actually enlighten me on what we can do defensively, right? Like, I’m going to go down in a minute. Those guys are really smart. I mean really smart. And not just them, I mean there’s a group of guys in there asking great questions that have learned from the older guys, but if you look at Alabama, you look at Auburn, we’re talking about well aged teams, very mature, right? So taking on a short turnaround or preparation that you have— two days, one day really because we didn’t go yesterday. We went through video having a bunch of young guys and I think that’s where Kentucky gets way too much grief for what Cal’s doing. That’s hard man. When you’re playing with a lot of young guys and trying to flip it around and get good defensively. Easier to be good on offense I think. But with these older teams, I think you give yourself a chance.”

On how conversations amongst the coaching staff evolve over the course of a game:

“Well, you’re making adjustments during the game, whether it’s ball-screen coverage, whether it’s what coach is coming up with offensively. I think you saw it in the Auburn game. I think Coach (Barnes) made a couple of great adjustments when they went zone. We got some instant baskets, gave us a little momentum. So there’s constant conversation going on in the huddle and you know, the way it is here, and one of the things I think that’s led to success, is that Coach Barnes is secure enough, obviously, with what he’s done, that he lets the players talk it out and ask them what they’re seeing, too. When you give your guys ownership, I think that goes a long way.”

On how critical the first four or five minutes of the game will be with how Alabama jumps on teams and it being in a hostile environment

“I don’t think it’s the first three or four minutes. I think it’s all those four minute segments. I mean, you’re talking about a team that came back from 16 down in Georgia. I’m watching the first half in the locker room the other night and I think Ole Miss has them 37-23. They don’t worry about it. You talk about lightning bolts, they got a bunch of them, you know? So with them you have to understand there’s going to be runs. You have to be mature enough to play through those runs. You can’t let your emotions dictate your enthusiasm to guard. So hopefully we’re gonna even mature enough to do that and hopefully we’re gonna score the ball and do the things that, you know, we were talking about earlier offensively.”

On how much he looks forward to going back to Tuscaloosa, where he served as an Alabama assistant coach for nine years

“Well, other than being called a traitor by most of the people that I know that are still there, like, ‘how could you do that? Right?’ It’s, as I always say, it’s been a privilege to be here. You know, it’s always fun for me to go back there. I make my home in Birmingham, Alabama. So to see old fans, friendly faces, you know, get a little gig, but it’s really as Coach says, it’s never about what my experience was there, you know? That’s in the rear view mirror. It’s now what we can do with this group and our job as assistant coaches is to give our guys the best opportunity to win because they’re gonna maximize their effort. We need to do the same with how we prepare.”

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