Barnes: ‘We’ve got to get better’

Marvin Westwestwords

As a matter of fact, Rick Barnes is hard to please.

The coach conceded that his 18-3 Volunteers played “pretty good” against Texas in the SEC/Big 12 challenge. He liked the atmosphere at Thompson-Boling Arena, the enthusiasm of 21,678 paying customers. He noticed that Olivier Nkamhoua scored 27, high for his time at Tennessee.

“When we move the ball, when we don’t dribble, dribble, dribble, we’re a pretty good team.”

How nice – no standing ovation but warm, friendly and encouraging.

That set up the punch line.

“We have to get better.”

See you at practice.

The Vols defeated the Longhorns, 82-71. They are not pushovers. They are good, one of the better defensive teams in the country. They certainly didn’t give up. They won the second half by a point. They are now 17-4. They are loaded with veteran transfers. Four have already surpassed 1,000-career points.

This was an important game, a rare match between top-10 teams. There was an emotional touch. Barnes coached at Texas for 17 seasons. The current coach, Rodney Terry, was on his staff for nine.

Summation: Texas wasn’t as good as Tennessee. The Vols won the rebound battle by 15. At their best, the difference was 22. The Vols hit 50 per cent in the first half and 62.5 after intermission. They somehow lost a point off their halftime advantage.

“Give them credit,” said Barnes. “We could’ve really stretched it out, but they’re an older, experienced team. They stayed in it. They maintained their poise. Z got a little excited, turned it over. I think they scored six straight points off turnovers.”

The visitors didn’t have anybody who could handle Nkamhoua. In addition to his scoring outburst (12 goals on 15 attempts), he had eight rebounds, three assists and blocked a shot.

The visitors had a lot of trouble with Zakai Zeigler. He had another double-double, 22 points and 10 assists. He did have three floor errors.

Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi helped win the game. James scored 14 and claimed seven rebounds. Vescovi finished with 12 points and eight rebounds. His primary defensive assignment was Marcus Carr, the Longhorns’ top gun. He failed to score in the first half and finished with 11, far below his average.

Barnes provided some insight on the Nkamhoua performance, a different tone from his opening remarks.

“It started in Friday practice. Without question, it was the best practice he’s had since he’s been here. His energy, the fact that he carried it over. Really happy for him because I know how much he cares and how much he wants to do the right thing. To see him come out and play the way he did, it was really special. Really happy for him.

“He was terrific. He was absolutely terrific.”

Barnes was asked about bottling Olivier’s energy and getting it from him more consistently.

“If I could figure that out … maybe this was what he needed to get him going. I thought he really searched out his spots on the floor. I thought he understood where he wanted to get the ball, what he wanted to do. I just hope this gives him the confidence … He loves the game and he works at it. He deserved this night.”

So, what did Ziggy do right?

“He’s got to be right there with the very best point guards in the country when you think about what he does night in and night out,” said the coach.

“What he’s learning how to do is make his teammates better, which is the sign of a point guard.”

Barnes went back to his opening remark about having to get better.

“Right now, I love this team. We’ve got a chance to be as good as we want to be. I think that it’s up to one thing. Are we tough enough to embrace the daily grind? Not worry about the NCAA Tournament, not worry about going to the Final Four.

“We can build a team that can be successful that time of year. It starts with truly embracing the grind every single day. It’s tough. We’ve been at it a long time. Can you knock out all of the noise around you?

“It’s not about being emotional and jacked up. It’s about taking care of business and knowing that it’s hard to win games against the University of Texas. And now I think we go to Florida next week. It’s hard. It’s only going to get harder because in February, teams get better. That’s why we have to get better.”

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected]


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