Rick Barnes Press Conference — Monday, Feb. 22

RICK BARNES
“I’m really happy for Armani Moore being Player of the Week this week in the Southeastern Conference. As you all know, he has done so much for us. Whatever the challenge is, he just keeps accepting that challenge. He would be the first to deflect that to his teammates, but we all appreciate what he has done for us all year long.

“In Kevin Punter’s situation, he is dealing with a stress fracture in his right foot. It is day-to-day. We have no idea other than that. He has been working. I saw him a little bit this morning. He is doing his training and everything with (athletic trainer) Chad Newman and (strength coach) Garrett Medenwald and his rehabilitation and what he has to do with that. The fact is he was over in the gym this morning and had a boot on. He said it was feeling a little bit better, but it is still going to just be day-to-day. I don’t see him playing, certainly, Wednesday night, but I have been fooled before. We are just going to monitor it day-to-day.”

(On earning the win over LSU without Kevin Punter Jr.)
“I don’t think we surprised them because in a situation like that, we didn’t change anything that we have done all year. Shembari (Phillips) obviously played more minutes, but we just told our team that this is what they have worked for all year. Guys that haven’t had the minutes–when you are called on, you have to be the next guy up to do your job. We didn’t change a lot. We prepared the same way. We didn’t make a big deal about it. We pretty much felt after the Kentucky game and especially the next day that (Punter) probably wouldn’t be around to play because he didn’t practice. Not that we did anything in practice, but he really didn’t even do the walkthrough with us. Nonetheless, I think it’s just a credit to our team. They showed some character. Derek Reese, who had not played very much, stepped up and did some nice things for us. Everyone made a contribution. We didn’t change a whole lot, didn’t really change anything.”

(On difficulty of seeing Punter’s injury this late in the season)
“It is tough. Looking back, I did not think he had been himself for the past three to four games. Actually, at the start of the Kentucky game, it’s probably the first time all year that I took him out [two minutes into the game]. I asked him, ‘What was going on? You don’t look yourself.’ He said, ‘I’m all right.’ He told me that the last couple weeks, his foot would hurt a little bit, then it’d go away a couple days, then come back. He said it really started bothering him in the warmups of the Kentucky game. It’s hard. I hurt for him. We all do because he is, first of all, a great person. He works hard. He is a great teammate. He has been a joy to be around. You hope that he will have a way to maybe get back and work through it. For him, it is tough on him because he is a competitor. He loves the game. He has done everything a coaching staff could ask him to do, so to see him in this situation at this time of year, we all feel for him.”

(On potential of Kevin Punter Jr. playing in the NBA)
“There is no doubt, I think, that he will get a shot at it. I think he will be one of those guys that will be invited to some camps. Once people really get into it and get to know him, they are going to want him because of all the intangibles. He is just getting started (as to) how good of a basketball player he can be, (especially) when you can score the ball like he can score it. He can score it in a variety of ways and has improved his shot to the point where you think it is almost automatic when he shoots his perimeter jump shot. He is long-armed. He has a really nice midrange game. He is still learning. I think what he had to go through this year, really trying to learn to play the point guard, is going to help him tremendously going forward. He has just scratched the surface, and I don’t think there is any question. There are too many good basketball people out there that will look at him and say, ‘We want to have him in and see what we can do.'”

(On the consistent success of home teams through SEC play this season)
“You have to look at your team, that is all you can really do. Our fan base has been tremendous this year. I think they have fallen in love with this group of guys and they see the effort they play with. Our guys don’t want to let them down. They want to compete and play hard. I think you can say that about other teams in the league on the road. Looking at it statistically, you will see that most teams do play better at home. To go on the road in a very balanced league, the talent level is probably more than people might want to give credit towards. To win in this league you have to have a competitive spirit about you. When you go on the road and play tough games there are a lot of factors that go into it. Refereeing is a part of it. You have to hope you get good referees and they have good days. Referees have good days just like teams do. When things are really close it is like a perfect storm coming, you obviously don’t have the emotional lift on the road like you do at home unless it comes from within, but that comes down to competitive spirit. I think there are trends that we go through. With the league, if you look at the coaches you see there are a lot of coaches in this league with a lot of experience. Every game is a grind. It is what it is. I wish we could all put our finger on it, but we earlier in the year we played well on the road and sometimes in the league we have and sometimes we haven’t.”

(On if senior Armani Moore is feeling a sense of urgency as the season winds down)
“I don’t know. That’s a good question, too. It’s one that you’d probably have to ask him. I think he’s been competitive for us, and there’s certain things that we know that we can count on every night. I said before, he doesn’t play perfect. He’ll take some shots at the wrong time, but I think that comes back from maybe his frustration, too. He wants to pass the ball, but he knows there’s times where we need to score. We all know–our coaching staff and our players–by our players’ body language if they’re playing with the kind of confidence that they need to be playing with. The one thing I know, Armani enjoys seeing his teammates playing with that kind of confidence. He’s often barking at them for not carrying themselves the way that he thinks you have to, and he’s right. I don’t think he tries to force a lot of things when he knows his team’s engaged with him. It’s when he senses that they’re not, that he’s going to try to do a lot, and sometimes a little bit too much. You’d rather have that than the other way. In terms of if he’s coming down the stretch, I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think his effort’s been good all year. I do know this, that he realized going into the game Saturday that (he’s) going to have to really help Shembari (Phillips) through this now. I thought he was great with Shembari. We try not to put a whole lot on his plate, knowing that he’s going to have to do a lot of different things. We weren’t really fluid offensively because Shembari, I’d rather have him play at the pace he was playing than that out-of-control pace he was playing at earlier in the year, but he still didn’t get us in the offense as smoothly as I know that he can. Armani was really trying to help him with that. He took the ball at the point a little bit. It’s good having a guy that’s willing to do that.”

(On maintaining a defensive intensity on the road)
“It’s focus. It’s understanding. You go back to the (earlier) South Carolina game (Jan. 23), a huge stat in that game was we were 30-for-32 from the free throw line. They’re a team, I think they average about 19 or 20 (free throw attempts). Defensively, we’ve got to work hard at not fouling against a team that’s aggressive and puts you in situations where you do have to foul. It’s a mindset, and it’s a nine o’clock game, so that’s a little rhythm. We’re all asking the question, ‘What’s different on the road?’ One, it’s going to be that late game, so you have to try to get guys to understand that when it’s time to play, you’ve got to be ready to play. You hope there’s not a lot that changes their rhythm throughout the day in a routine. It’s just being on edge, concentrating, and knowing that you’ve got a job to do, and you’ve got to do it.”

(On being short-handed at South Carolina and what that means to the younger players)
“I think going forward, there’s always those blessings in disguise. The minutes that Shembari’s (Phillips) getting right now, the minutes that Admiral’s (Schofield) played into this year, and Kyle (Alexander), and you throw in Detrick Mostella. Those are big minutes for those guys. The thing I like about this group, and again, we didn’t make a big deal about it. It’s not like I stood up in front of the team (at Mississippi State) and made this great pep talk about, ‘Armani’s not going to play here.’ We did the same thing with (Kevin Punter Jr.). This is what it is. You other guys that have been here, we’re not going to ask you to do something that you can’t do. We didn’t say, ‘Let’s win one for the gipper here.’ We didn’t do any of that. We said we’ve got enough, and we’ve just got to go and everybody’s go to be willing to do more. I think it goes back to our team showed a lot of character. I think the players individually did, and we need to build on it. I think we can. I think this time of year, you’ve got to love it. If you’re a player, there’s four regular season games. They’re huge for everybody. If you’re a competitor, you’ve got to love it, knowing that you’ve still got four games to play and a chance to do some things.”

(On South Carolina’s recent play)
“Well, I think when you really look at the program that Frank Martin inherited, and for him, where they started, what, two years ago and be where they are this year, playing in a game, I can only imagine the hype before (last week’s) game (between) South Carolina and Kentucky–both teams tied for first place, playing for outright first place. So you’ve got a group of guys who have never been there in South Carolina, and I’m sure they were anxious, but that’s just part of the building process. I think it’s great that for Frank and his team, and I think he even said it, a game of so much meaning for a group of guys who have never experienced that. So, I mean, that’s part of building a program that guys understand that, hey, it’s a game, but it’s not any bigger (than any other game). But I can imagine the hype around it all, going around town there and everything. But when you look at their team and what he’s done, I’m not surprised. We became good friends while he was at Kansas State and his teams are tough, hard-nosed; they truly do personify his personality. He looks for a certain kind of player that he wants to have in his program. He believes in fighting you on every inch of the court. He’s not going to let you think that you’re going walk out and get the ball on this area of the floor or this area of the floor, he’s not going to let you reverse it easily. On offense, I think he’s like everybody. He puts his system in on getting everyone to play to their roles. But it’ll be a much different game in terms of they’re going to be a much more aggressive team. I would arguably say that they might be the most aggressive team in the league in terms of their half court defense, really getting after you and contesting every pass and every shot. That’s what they do.”

(On Shembari Phillips’ development as a point guard)
“Well, that is a big surprise because he certainly found a way to turn it over early on in the year. He was playing way too fast, and some of it was his footwork, where he’d get in a hurry and travel. But it goes back from the time that he got here this summer, he had to play the point and he’s never played it before. So he and Kevin Punter started a position where they had to guard each other every day and they had to try to learn what we’re trying to do. You know, Shembari has really good vision, he’s not afraid to throw some passes down the floor. He threw a great over-the-top pass and a baseball pass the other day at the end of the game. He seized the floor and he’s working. He’s a guy that, I think, he takes the ball hard to the basket, he’s our best guy on the team with movement without the ball. He makes great cuts, he does a great job on getting fouled with his cuts. He’s got great pace to his game there. But he’s not a point guard yet. He’s not, but he is a guy, that when you look at certain guys, you think, you know he could possibly really develop those traits because of the fact that he does see it. He doesn’t totally understand the position yet, but he’s learning it. In the past, he’s been a guy that just runs and shoots and jumps, those types of things, but now he’s being asked to make everybody else know where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do. Overall, again, I think he’s come a long way and I think moving forward is going to help him grow and develop as a player.”

(On how he determines Ray Kasongo’s minutes)
“Practice and match-ups and different things. One reason we wanted Derek Reese in the game the other day, was that Derek does handle the ball well, he sees things well, he’s a guy that understands what we’re trying to do defensively, whereas Ray is still trying to figure out that part of himself, where he fits in and what we need from him. But, again, I give Ray credit for continuing to work and do the things that we ask him to do. But we go into games, I will tell you this last couple of weeks, thinking that there’s not a guy that we’re not willing to use if we need him. But the situation and what happens in the game really determine what ends up happening.”

Grant Ramey covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at twitter.com/GrantRamey