NEW YORK — Everything Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, where the fourth-seeded Vols (25-10) will face No. 9-seed Florida Atlantic (33-3) on Thursday (9 p.m. Eastern Time, TBS) in the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament’s East Region:
Tennessee Head Coach Rick Barnes
RICK BARNES: Just really excited to be here, obviously. I’m so proud of our players, and we are as a staff. With all that they’ve gone through this year, and to be here is really just a tremendous compliment to them, and excited to get ready to play again.
Q. Is this your first postseason game coaching in the Garden since ’94 we were wondering, and what is it like for you and your players being here? Have they shared anything with you about — obviously you played here during the regular season. Any good stories or anything crazy about them playing here and their thoughts on it?
RICK BARNES: You know, we played here, was it a year ago, I think, Texas Tech? I know this: We all enjoy coming here. Certainly the time that I spent up in Providence and growing up in North Carolina, I have great respect for this part of the country because I’ve always said people here understand basketball at the highest level.
Every year we do talk about how can we get to New York. Obviously we played in Brooklyn earlier this year against Maryland. But coming a year ago, I think they know it’s a special place. They certainly know what playing in the Garden is about.
Certainly with Allan Houston being here and being a part of it, I know they’re excited about being here.
Q. You spent a lot of time in the Big 12. I was just wondering if you ever formed any sort of relationship with Jerome Tang while he was at Baylor and from the outside what you’ve made of what he’s been able to do with that program in one year.
RICK BARNES: Well, in one year, what can you say other than he’s been terrific. He’s done a terrific job, and certainly a great story was Keyontae Johnson. He was in our league and had his incident. But for his comeback, he’s been, I think, a great story for college basketball.
Yeah, I’ve known Jerome, and he’s obviously had a big hand in what went on at Baylor in terms of building that program. And again, from all that time, he certainly understands the Big 12 and what it’s about, and how can you — again, it’s a tremendous job, to have a first year there, which I think they were not picked to finish very high, and for him to get them to this point is really a great job by he and his staff.
Q. You’re very familiar, of course, with Texas and with Rodney Terry. Just wondering what you think of the job he’s done given the circumstances that he had to inherit.
RICK BARNES: Rodney has done a tremendous job. Rodney was with me for a long time while I was there, and I have the utmost respect for him. And you look at the situation, the way it unfolded, and for him to get the respect — I know they respected him in the role that he was in as the associate head coach. But for him to slide over and the way he’s handled it with an older group of guys, I’m not sure anyone else in the country could have done it any better.
And for them to be where they are is, again, another great compliment to Rodney and his staff. And he would tell you that it’s not just him, but the leadership that he’s gotten there from the university, as well. But he’s done an outstanding job.
Q. Obviously you’ve made the Sweet 16 and the Tennessee women’s team has made the Sweet 16. What do you think it is about your department as a whole that has allowed for success in both basketball teams?
RICK BARNES: Well, I think it really starts with our administration. In my eight years there, we have had some change. But I’ve said before, with what we have with Randy Boyd as our president and Donde Plowman, what she’s done on campus has been phenomenal. Then Danny White has come in and has made as big an impact within two years of anyone I’ve ever seen in terms of the fact that he’s done something to help every sport on that campus. Because he’s a very competitive athletic director. He wants us to be good in everything.
He and his staff, they’ve not just talked about it, they’ve done it. Certainly I’m excited for Kellie. I think she’s got one of those difficult jobs because of the great tradition of our program, but she has done an incredible job. Because I was there before she was, and I saw when she came in how quickly she wanted to build her culture, and she’s done it. They’ve had a tough year with injuries, but for them to be where they are right now, again, she and her staff have a lot to be commended for.
Q. Question about Florida Atlantic. What did you know about them before the matchup came together, and what have you learned about them since?
RICK BARNES: Well, they certainly catch your attention early in the year when they went to Florida and won at Florida, something we didn’t do. Any program, team that wins 33 games, I don’t care what league you’re in, because it’s hard. All jobs are hard and difficult jobs, but for them to go through that, the first word that would come to my mind is consistency, because to do that day in and day out, knowing that they became the team that everybody was wanting to beat and gear up for.
And you look at their team, they’re smart, they know each other well, great concepts on the offensive end, very sound defensively, and they should be a very highly confident team, because again, you win 33 games, it speaks volumes.
No doubt all that they’ve done, they’ve earned it.
Q. Rick, I believe I’m paraphrasing here, but I believe you said a week or two ago that you couldn’t remember a season in your career that’s gone quite the way this one has with injuries and everything. How rare is it in your career to come across something that you’ve never come across before, and how did you keep your and the team’s spirits up with all that?
RICK BARNES: Well, really, we often say that throughout our lifetime, that I haven’t seen anything like this, but this year in terms of the key injuries that we had. In talking to Chad Newman, I asked him, in your 28 years at Tennessee have you gone through anything like this, and he said, not with key individuals at key times of the season.
What I would say is I think that our players have a lot that they should be proud about. And just the fact that — we felt it. I would be not honest with you if I didn’t tell you that you felt — me as a coach felt the tension that was going on. But yet wanting to make sure our guys believed if we could go out and keep doing what we do and trust in what we’ve done up to this point that some way, somehow it would work out. And I think we all had to some way, somehow rely on our own personal faith in what we’re going to try to get through it. Because it was difficult. It really was.
I think we all had to figure out how to handle it in our own way. But the fact is I’m really proud of — and I’ve used the word — these guys being resilient because they have been.
We thought going into the Arkansas game that we were going to be able to hit our stride at the right time, and obviously early in the game Zakai got hurt and we were playing at home and certainly rode that emotion through that win.
At that point we knew it was going to be a little bit different because Zakai was such a big part of our late-game situations, and without him we knew we’d have to find a way to work through that. And these guys have figured it out to a point to get them here.
But as a coaching staff, we’re just excited and know we’re blessed to have a group of guys that have bought into each other and bought into what we’ve tried to do.
Q. Rick, about Zakai, he’s from the area, it’s a game with great magnitude in an iconic building in his area, and two of the other teams have New York area point guards going for them. How impactful is missing him on your team, and how tough is it that you feel for him given that he’s not getting to participate in this thing that sort of holds so much for him?
RICK BARNES: Well, we all feel for him because he’s such a big part. He came in a year ago, and the story is well documented that we spent a week recruiting him at the end of July and he made the commitment to come. He walked on campus five days late and classes had already started.
It didn’t take but about two workouts — we actually recruited him with the idea we thought we would redshirt him because we had Kennedy Chandler, who we knew he would probably be a one-and-done player. But after a couple days we knew we couldn’t redshirt him.
He brought something within his DNA that really impacted our team in a great way a year ago. I think he’s one of those guys that when you play with him, you have the mindset we’ve got this guy, we’re going to be okay.
So for him not to — but he’s still a part of this. He didn’t travel with us last week because he went through surgery last week, but there’s no way he wasn’t going to come back here and be a part of it.
But you do feel for him because he understands — the first question that was asked about the Garden, he understands probably more than anybody in that locker room. But the fact is his personality and who he is, he has an impact on this program, and it looms over the program. There’s no question about that.
But we all wish that he were playing. There’s no question about that.
Q. You’ve had one good game shooting from three, one not so good game shooting from three, but the shooting in this tournament in general has not been very good. I know you only get a chance to see your team, but any reason why you think that 30 percent from three is what’s going on in this tournament?
RICK BARNES: Well, I do think this: I think there is a great deal of emphasis placed on defense in college basketball now because I think we know we’re dealing with young people where inconsistencies can be a part of it. We all work obviously and we all will tell you that we need guys that can put the ball in the basket.
Truth be told, if you ask every coach before every game if you have a concern, he would say, I hope we can make a basket. Because the other things you feel you can control with effort and if you’re locked in with a game plan.
But sometimes you can run the exact play that you want, get the exact shot that you want, and it doesn’t fall for you.
But I would have to say most of all, if it’s down, it’s because of the defense, because it’s hard to get baskets. You come down the court — whether we’re playing Louisiana the other night or Duke, can we find a way to score here, can we shake loose and get a good look? And if you do get it, oftentimes I think players are surprised that they’ve got such a good look.
We’re playing a team right now that I think they can lock and load that thing as quick as anybody we’ve played all year. And knowing that anybody that you play is capable of having one of those nights, I hope we can break our trend and keep shooting it. I think we can. I think we’re a good shooting team.
I do think defense probably has as much to do with it as anything.
Q. With Zakai Zeigler out, how has Santiago stepped up and succeeded in both playing and creating team chemistry?
RICK BARNES: Well, what he’s done, he’s a very versatile player. He impacts winning without ever scoring a basket. He is a guy that has played point before, four years ago when we were going really through a transition in our program, he and Josiah James as freshmen had to play the point, and they certainly weren’t ready to do it at that point in time, but they had to. They had to figure that out.
Santi is great with moving without the ball, and he’s great at — I’ve said before, I don’t know if anybody has been guarded any harder than he has been guarded all year long. People literally won’t leave him. He’s learned how to — he’s a very smart player. He knows how to set back screens and get his teammates open.
What he’s done as much as anything is how he’s impacted the game on the defensive end. He went from a guy early in his career that people literally went after every game, to where now he’s been on the all defensive team and does what he does because he understands the game and how to impact winning.
Q. Jim Boeheim coached until he was 78, Pitino just got the St. John’s job at 70. You’re pushing something, and is age not a difference anymore?
RICK BARNES: That’s a great question. You know, I think we all know when we’ve had enough. Like people ask me oftentimes what goes through your mind? And I think if I ever got to the point where I didn’t look forward to going to practice — and I have great respect for Jim Boeheim, and I got to spend some time with him this summer. And he — when I was with him, I thought if he wanted to, he could coach five more years because he’s out recruiting, he’s doing what we have to do at certain times of the year.
I think it gets back to individual personalities and how you feel and where you think you are with it. I’m not surprised about Coach Pitino. He loves coaching basketball. I think guys that stay in it for a long time, I think it’s a love of the game. I think they enjoy it.
I’ve said often, the best job in America is when you can get up every day with young people who have great dreams and you want to help them work towards those goals and they’re willing to buy into the things that you need to do that you can help them with.
But I don’t know if I would say — I don’t think you can put age on it. I think it gets back to individual personalities and where they are at that point in time in their career and their life in terms of what they see themselves doing.
I would say this: A lot of coaches that I know that quit early made the comment they wish they would have stayed with it. I think at one time there is — there is a shelf life for everybody, but I think people thought when you got to your mid 60s it was time to be finished. And like I said, some people that did do that, they’ve said they wished they would have kept going.
Q. For all of you, have you played at the Garden before? Is this your first time here? Anything really surprise you about the building? The other FAU guys said it was smaller than they thought. When you’re walking around and see the photos, has anything stood out to you, just anything special about playing here?
SANTIAGO VESCOVI: First of all, thank you. We have played before here one time, if I’m not wrong — two? We played here only one time against Texas Tech. Definitely a game we don’t want to go back to. It was an awful shooting night for both teams, not a pretty game. But hopefully we’re going to get a little bit better for this game.
Like I said, we’ve been here so we kind of knew what the building looked like, and it’s definitely fun to be here again.
OLIVIER NKAMHOUA: Yeah, I also remember I was confusing the Maryland game, that was in Barclays. But we’ve definitely played here last year, and it was a rough game, but hopefully we have better basketballs this time, so maybe it’ll go a little smoother for everybody involved.
JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: Just to echo what they said, we played here against Texas Tech, a game that we tried to forget about. But just being here in Madison Square Garden, forget the basketball, I know there’s a lot of great basketball players who come here, but there’s a lot of talented people who get to perform here night in and night out, and it’s just an honor to be here and be on this stage.
Q. I guess being a leader of this team and getting to this point, you guys lose Zakai Zeigler, now you’re back. You guys never quit?
JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: Yeah, we’ve been resilient. That’s what we talked about. That’s what we knew it was going to come down to. We didn’t expect the season to go how it did with the injuries and the guys in and out of the lineup, and especially with Zakai being out for the rest of the season.
But we just preach resiliency as one of our core foundations that we have as our culture, and we’ve just embodied it. And I give credit to our coaches. I give credit to my teammates because without them, we wouldn’t be here. Without every last person in that locker room, we wouldn’t be here. And we’re just trying to soak up every moment that we have here and keep the season going.
Q. Obviously you’re one of the few programs where your women’s team is also in the Sweet 16, so I was wondering if you could describe your relationship with the women’s players and how you’ve supported each other over the last few weeks and the entire season.
JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: The University of Tennessee, it’s an everything school. We try to embody that. There’s a great culture not only within our basketball program but all of our programs. We get a chance to go support other student-athletes from other sports, and we try our best to, and they do the same for us.
The culture that we have at Tennessee is second to none. We all love each other, we all support each other, and it’s so easy because we have great teams doing great things. But like I said, Tennessee is an everything school. We strive to be the best at everything.
OLIVIER NKAMHOUA: Just to go off what he said, I think it’s really cool to be one of the schools where two of our programs in basketball are in the NCAA Tournament, have made it as far as we have.
We see the girls every day. We practice in the same facilities, so we see them around and we know how hard they work and how much they want to be in the position that they’re in, and we hope that they make a run and keep going.
SANTIAGO VESCOVI: Pretty much everything they said. We’re definitely happy for their team, for anybody from Tennessee. Like Jo said, we’re an everything school. We really take care of each other. We all root for each other. It’s one big family.
I think any of our UT teams’ success is everybody’s success. We’re rooting for them. We’re happy that we’re here, they’re here, too, in the Sweet 16, and let’s just keep it going.
Q. Josiah, you talked about your school program. You look at the opponent you’re playing, these guys are — most people had to look up where they were located. Do you kind of take that as how do we handle that? Do you say, these guys won 33 games, they’re good?
JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: Yeah, we respect each and every opponent that we play against. And we know making it to March Madness, being one of the 64 teams selected, like you deserve to be there. So we’re not overlooking anybody. They’ve made it just as far as we have, so they have every right to think that they can beat us, and any team can be beaten on any given night.
They have really talented players. They’ve only lost three games. It’s going to be a really, really tough fight. We’re definitely not overlooking any of their players or their coaches. We know they’re going to come prepared, and it’s not going to be easy.
Q. Were there any times during the season with all the injuries and everything that you just — did you have to fight feelings of saying, this just isn’t our year, nothing is working out the way we want, nobody can get healthy at the same time? How tough was it to fight those vibes, if at all?
SANTIAGO VESCOVI: No, we never thought that.
JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: I feel like that’s how we all feel.
OLIVIER NKAMHOUA: What Santi said.
Q. This year, a lot of guys have stepped up throughout the season. It’s different night, different guy. Olivier, last week 27 points. Seeing guys like him step up helping you out, what’s it mean to have multiple guys step up on a nightly basis?
SANTIAGO VESCOVI: First of all, being part of a team, you get to see a lot of things people don’t see from the outside. I’m not really surprised at all when other guys step up. Olivier, Josiah, any guy on the team. We believe that we’re one of the best, if not the best, the most hardworking team in the country.
I think with that, like I see the other guys put in the work they put in, you don’t get to see that anywhere else, and I think the guys deserve to be where we’re at right now. And I think when the guys step up, it’s showing how much work they’ve put in when the lights are off, when nobody is around, when it’s an empty gym. That’s just not easy for everyone, but I think our guys want this as bad as anybody else, and I think that’s why we all put the work in.
I think they’re just — yeah, I think it’s just showing how much they work when nobody else is looking.
Q. Does Florida Atlantic remind you of anybody you’ve faced this year, and if so, why?
JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: They like to get a lot of threes up and play at the rim. They don’t really like playing in the mid-range area. And one team that is like that in our conference is Alabama. They like to play a similar play style on offense. And we have to go back and learn from what we did well against Alabama and hopefully apply it to this game.
Q. Just wondering, with Santiago being from Montevideo, and Olivier in Helsinki, how does the cosmopolitan nature of this team help in terms of its growth, its camaraderie, unity, being kind of a worldly type of team?
OLIVIER NKAMHOUA: I feel like it’s big for any team to have a diverse group of individuals. Having different kind of personalities in the locker room, just brings you closer, and you have to get to know each other more. And you have to — well, honestly we’re lucky with the language barrier. All of us by the time we made it to this school, we all knew how to speak English so that was a big help for us.
But having other cultures to learn from, and it’s just not only the fact that we have some international guys, we have guys from even all over the United States. And just that in and of itself helps us to learn from each other and grow together.
SANTIAGO VESCOVI: I really love it. I love the whole team that we have, the guys, international or from here from the States. They’re all over the place, and it’s just great. Once it comes to the locker room, you can never get bored. You always have something different going on. You have guys with stories from all around the world.
I’m glad that language barrier is not a problem anymore. By the time we all got here, we all spoke pretty good English. It’s just fun. It’s fun to have all different types of guys, and I think that helps us on and off the court.
Q. Josiah, what’s it like playing for a guy who’s almost 70?
JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: You would never know it just by the energy that he brings each and every day. There’s some times when he gets to screaming and yelling and coaching us hard like he does, where I’m worried about him. But he keeps coming. He keeps coming. He doesn’t take any days off. It’s really a blessing because he has so much knowledge, so many stories, and I just feel like every day it’s something new that he can talk about.
He’s been a great mentor, a great teacher for not only me, but for the whole team. I’ve learned so much, we’ve learned so much from him. It’s really been a blessing.
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