Everything Rick Barnes Said Previewing Tennessee’s Start To SEC Play

Rick Barnes

Rick BarnesPhoto By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee basketball opens up SEC play Wednesday evening at Ole Miss as a new season begins for the Vols. Rick Barnes is looking for his second SEC regular season championship in his Tennessee tenure and the Vols have as good a chance as anybody to earn the conference crown.

The Vols enter the 18-game SEC slate 10-2 including strong wins over Kansas, Maryland and USC. Tennessee’s two losses came against Pac 12 foes Colorado and Arizona.

Here’s everything Barnes said as the Vols prepare for a SEC title run.

More From RTI: ‘No Change’ To Josiah-Jordan James Status Ahead Of SEC Play

On Josiah-Jordan James’ Status

“No change. He’s doing a little bit more with (trainer) Chad (Newman) and (strength coach) Garrett (Medenwald), but with us, he’ll warm up with us a little bit, but he hasn’t gotten in on five-on-five stuff yet.”

On what he likes and doesn’t like about his team as SEC play starts

“I like the fact that I think we’ve played hard, been pretty much locked in. As you guys know, the start of conference season, you’re starting over. Now you’re going into territory where everybody knows everything they need to know about you. When conference play starts up, I still look at us and we’ve got to improve with our transition defense. We still have got to be better with ball-screen coverage. And offensively, we’re going to have to take care of the ball, certainly, against Ole Miss, or anybody that you play. But it’s still about us trying to get better along the way here, while we’re getting ready for conference play, where everything gets ratcheted up.”

On the challenges of starting SEC play on the road after Christmas Break

“The fact is, you’re always concerned coming back after Christmas. You always are. Even though, I think our guys were gone what, two and a half, three days. We weren’t very sharp yesterday in practice the way we should be, especially with the group we have right now. Whether we start on the road or at home, to me, it really doesn’t matter. We’re going to have to play half of them here, half of them away. It’s a quick turnaround, obviously. That’s why we had to come back on Christmas night, just to make sure we could get everybody back here so we could get a good day in yesterday. But regardless, we’re going to have to be better than we were certainly yesterday in practice. Because there’s such a fine between winning and losing. Got to get our mindset right because got a lot of respect for Ole Miss and Kermit (Davis). His teams are going to play hard. They’re rebounding great. They are going to try to make you get out of your comfort zone, so we’re going to have to be ready.”

On what Julian Phillips has to do to develop consistency

“I would say the biggest thing I think he really has to understand, he needs to get lost in the game, in terms of not thinking about scoring. It’s typical of most young players, they have done that their entire life. And we need him to score. But nights when he’s not shooting the ball well, not scoring maybe the way he thinks he should, he’s got to impact that game in tother ways defensively. And he’s done a really nice job rebounding the ball. But defensively, I believe and I would tell any of the offensive players, the guys that look at themselves that way, if you get lost in the game and especially put your focus on the defensive end, I think their instincts will naturally take over for them on the offensive end. We need him obviously to score for us. We need him to impact the game in any and every way that he can, because he can truly impact games in multiple ways if he really locks into it.”

On what Tobe Awaka and Jonas Aidoo need to do to see their minutes continue to increase during SEC play

“I think what they’ve done, what Tobe has done, is simply work the way he has. He’s probably the most improved guy on our team from the day he walked in until where he is right now. And Jonas, it’s a matter of continuing, like the last week has been really good. It’s effort, playing hard, understanding that we need him to, again, play defense. We need him to be really good in ball-screen coverage. We need him to be able to contain the ball, rebound the ball. I just think, again, what I said about Julian. If all guys, especially our post players, we need them to (play) defense, rebound, then if they do that, I think with what we do on offense, they’re going to get their opportunities on the offensive end if they take care of all the other things they need to take care of. In terms of getting where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be there and being balanced, ready to do something with it when we give them the ball.”

On the biggest challenges for Tennessee’s younger players entering conference play

“I think now it’s going to be the grind, what we’re getting ready to get into, with the younger guys. It’s been a grind for, I mean, Julian has played quite a few minutes and there’s no doubt he’s played, he would tell you, that it’s been probably the hardest adjustment he’s had to make in basketball, in terms of physicality, the speed of the game, the quickness of the game. Night in and night out, everybody you play is a good player. But I think once you’re talking now, it’s the grind of conference play and you’re getting started right now. In some ways, younger guys probably feel like they’ve already played an entire season, in terms of the physicality and the mental work that goes into preparation for games. But these first couple weeks will be interesting to see how they respond.”

On what makes Ole Miss so good defensively under Kermit Davis

“Well, one, he’s a terrific coach and he mixes his defense. He’ll play man-to-man, they can get after you. They’re an athletic team. He’ll throw is 1-3-1 out there where if you get it done, it’ll morph into a 2-3. He likes that and he’ll stay in it as long as he thinks you can’t handle it. He combines that with great offensive concepts. He really does a good job getting the guys he wants shots, shots, to where they need to have them. They rebound. They really rebound the basketball. Offensively, they go probably harder than anybody we’ve played up to this point consistently. They do a great job with getting their misses. They’re really terrific in transitions. Obviously Matt Murrell is terrific. He gets going. He’s a handful.”

On Tennessee’s shooting percentages changing and whether there’s a rhyme or reason to that

“We keep a lot of numbers here with guys. We know where they’re most effective and then what’s important is that they understand that. That they understand, like for instance, Tyreke (Key) is shooting a much better percentage when he is closer to the three-point line than opposed to being further out. So, he’s going to have to work hard to get the ball in an area where his numbers prove that. It’s not right up against the three-point line, but it’s not six or seven feet behind it. Whereas Zakai (Zeigler) shoots better the deeper he is. Santi (Vescovi) shoots the ball when he’s a little bit further back. It’s them understanding those little subtle details and doing their work early, getting their feet set and shooting the shots we want them to shoot. So, one, we’re in a position to go rebound it, and then, inside, our two-point (shot), we’ve done a better job. We’ve still got to get better and that’s what this game is about. Can you get better everyday? You look at not only your team and what you have to get better at — I mentioned transition defense, ball-screen coverage and I could talk a lot about a lot of different things, but individually, same thing. Players have to understand this time of year, it’s not just ‘okay, this is the player I am now, can I get better today?’ And by the time postseason rolls around, you want to think that you’ve put everything in it to become the best player you can become right now. Then when the seasons over with, everybody is going to say, ‘okay, this is what I need to do to get better.’ But I think it’s important that you try to get better right now.”

On if Olivier Nkamhoua has returned to his form from before his injury last season

“It goes back to understanding what we meed him to do and not fighting it. Not just Olivier, but players in general sometimes see themselves in a way that maybe they shouldn’t. We don’t want to ever put somebody in a box. We want guys to get better everyday. But the key to being effective is consistency. What are we going to get today? What are we going to get tomorrow? Can we count on it every single day? Offensively, when he gets his balance. When he gets his space on the floor, he’s effective and we’re comfortable and confident getting him the ball there. Letting him know that this is what he’s worked on, now go at it. He’s going to work. Olivier, there’s not anybody in the country that is going to put more time in. He’ll keep getting better and the more he plays — I’ve said it. I don’t think he’s anywhere close to being the player he can be. Once the mental side of the game catches up to him physically, he’s going to really take off.”

On where Tennessee has improved the most the first half of the season

“We have improved defensively, rebounding wise. That’s our program. We talk about defense and rebounding wins most of the nights. You do those two things, you have a chance every night. We’ve been consistently getting better. Not anywhere near where we think we can be. That’s a trend we have to stick with. We have to continue to get better defensively. We have to keep rebounding the ball at an extremely high level. We can get better there both offensively and defensively. That’s what has put us in a position so far to where we’ve had some success.”

Author: Ethan Moore