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March 17, 2023

Rick Barnes

Olivier Nkamhoua

Josiah-Jordan James

Santiago Vescovi

Orlando, Florida, USA

Amway Center

Tennessee Volunteers

Media Conference

Q. Olivier, what stands out or makes Dereck Lively such a good shot blocker, and what stands out about Duke's interior defense as a whole?

OLIVIER NKAMHOUA: Obviously he's a very athletic player and he uses that to his advantage. He has good timing. And then to be a good shot blocker you have to be willing, and he definitely is. You can't be -- you have to be kind of fearless, and he has that factor in him. He's going for all the shots. He's trying to get them all regardless of somebody trying to come in and dunk on him or somebody shooting a floater. He has that confidence that he can get them all. I feel like just that fearlessness of going for every shot.

Q. Santiago, Tyrese Proctor told us that you and he have history. You were apparently roommates at the academy. What do you remember about him from those days, and what can you tell us about his playing style?

SANTIAGO VESCOVI: Definitely remember him. He came in the academy kind of when I was on my way out. He was a young fella, loved to be friends with him. He was one of my roommates. We had a great time together, to be honest. And I remember leaving the academy, I was surprised with him and a couple other players younger than we were at that time, how talented they were.

I think he's a great player all around. He can shoot the ball. He can drive. He's a smart kid. Like I said, overall he's a really talented player, and I'm very excited and looking forward to tomorrow to play against him.

Q. Josiah, do you think there's an advantage to playing a tight, close game like you guys did last night in the first round of the tournament?

JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: I definitely do. We would have liked to have kept the lead that we had, but it shows that we've learned from games in the past where we have given up big leads and ultimately lost the game. So we held our composure. We did a good job of staying even keeled throughout the game and ultimately got the job done. So I think it'll play to our advantage moving forward.

Q. Santi, what have you seen from Jeremy Roach so far, and scouting Duke's perimeter players as a whole, what's going to be key for you and Jahmai and Josiah tomorrow?

SANTIAGO VESCOVI: Kind of adding up to Tyrese Proctor. We know they have really good guards, especially Roach. He's a very quick guard. He's very good playing off ball screens. He can shoot it. He can get to the rim. I think they have two very dynamic players in him and Proctor.

And of course we're going to have to do a very good job defending ball screens. That's our main go-to. That's what we're going to have to focus on the most.

Q. How much did the loss last year in this round, how much has that driven you over the course of the season?

JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: It's driven us a whole lot. We were able to get a taste of it with the victory at Longwood. We were excited, we were happy, and then a couple days later we played a really tough Michigan team, and we just remember that feeling of the defeat, the hurt and the pain that we had. It's really fueled us to get to this point.

We know that we're going to have to go into a dogfight less than 24 hours from now to not have that feeling. We've just got to play together and play our game.

Q. Josiah, does tomorrow kind of feel a little bit like that Michigan game last year just considering that it's a team that maybe is a little bit more talented than its seed maybe represents?

JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: I guess you could say that, but we really don't pay attention to seeds. We don't get into all that. We know Duke is a really talented team, one of the more talented teams we faced, if not the most talented. We've got to do what we do, play together both offensively and defensively. But we don't really care about the seed or anything like that.

Q. Olivier, what's the one reason you would pinpoint Jahmai has taken the leap he has the last two, three weeks?

OLIVIER NKAMHOUA: Well, he's a young player, and as for all young players, the more you play, the more confidence you gain, and you get in rhythm. I think just the time on the floor has just helped him grow his game.

Q. Josiah, obviously y'all have been through it this year kind of health-wise. You have, a lot of other guys have, Santi up here has, guys have been in and out of the lineup. How much has that tested -- I don't know if patience is the right word, but sort of the resolve of this team, because it just seems like it's been one thing after the other after the other.

JOSIAH-JAMES JORDAN: Yeah, our biggest thing is just fighting through adversity. We've had some tough breaks throughout the season, but nobody has folded. Everybody has come back, and we've stayed together as a group. We've been through a whole lot from the beginning of the season to right now, and we still made it to this point.

So we know that the adversity that we've faced is only going to help us in games and situations like this. Guys have had to step up and play big roles and more minutes with guys being out. I think it all just comes together in helping us in this tournament right here.

Q. Josiah, anything different in preparation? Pretty quick turnaround after a late game last night and getting into preparation today. Anything different with recovery?

JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: I would just say there's been a bigger emphasis on it. We had a quick little session earlier after breakfast this morning, foam rolling, stretching. But just an emphasis on getting sleep because we had a late night last night, so everybody getting the recovery that they need sleep-wise. And then after practice, we'll do a whole 'nother recovery session. I think it's just been a bigger emphasis on it.

Q. Josiah, following up on that, how much of a benefit can it be to have this rest day in the middle in comparison to the SEC tournament when it was that nature of being back to back?

JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: Yeah, it's really beneficial, not only for us but for every team. Playing back-to-back days is really tough. Games are tough to win, especially in these types of environments where it's a 40-minute fight. It's really tough, and it takes a toll on your body. So having that 24-hour period in between games is huge, and we're trying to take full advantage of it as possible.

Q. Olivier, when y'all have those stretches offensively where the turnovers kind of compile, and maybe not quite as bad as it was in the first half yesterday, but moments where turnovers come in clusters, how do you as a team stop that stuff from happening? Rick always says concentrate, do the little things, but is that all it is or is there more to stopping those nasty streaks?

OLIVIER NKAMHOUA: I've got to go with Coach on that one. Just focus, paying attention, keeping focused, staying connected, keeping concentration and knowing what we're doing at the time, what the game plan is, what we're trying to get done, executing.

Q. Rick, John Scheyer just told us that you recruited him back in the day and that you had told him you were going to get Kevin Durant he would have gone to Texas. What happened?

RICK BARNES: Obviously I didn't know I was going to get him at the time. Yeah, Jon is a good player, good person. I think Jon could have gone anywhere he wanted to go, and he obviously picked Duke, and it's worked out well for him. Terrific player. We played against him -- I don't remember. I just know we played against him in the NCAA Tournament somewhere and they beat us, they knocked us out.

Always have great respect for him and the way he handles himself. Saw him on the road last summer at the Peach Jam in Augusta, the first time I had seen him since he got the job and congratulated him. And certainly worthy of it and really has done a terrific job.

Always a tough situation when you follow someone that -- what Mike did there. But Jon really has done a great job with this team. I think he's done a great job getting through some injuries earlier in the year, but getting them to where they're playing their best basketball right now at the right time.

Q. Do you think it's an advantage to play a tight, tough game like last night in the first round of this tournament?

RICK BARNES: At the time last night, I wish it would have been a little bit easier, but we had a lead, and we needed to make our free throws when a team starts hitting some threes. But I go back to a year ago, it was kind of the opposite. We played -- came out, played really well, then went up against obviously a tougher opponent. I do think, and I mentioned this last night, what we've gone through in our league the last month, I think has helped us win a game like last night.

I'm not so sure we'd have known how to handle it if it would have stayed easy last night because it seems like every game for the last month has been a one- or two-possession game coming down the stretch, and you certainly hope this time of year that all that's going to come back to help you when you most need it.

Q. What makes Duke such a good rebounding team and how important will the rebounding battle be tomorrow?

RICK BARNES: Well, I think on paper they're probably the biggest team in the tournament, and they make a great effort to go get there. We've always believed that it's a talent. It's got to somewhat be in your DNA that you want to go get it like they do.

They run really good offense. They space the floor well, and I think they know where their shots are coming from. So they're ready to go get it, so that will be a big part of tomorrow's game, but it's a big part of every game. But again, as we watch film with our players, that was one of the big emphasis. We know that they're going to come to the glass, they know we're going to come to the glass, so I expect that to be a big part of the game.

Q. What's the one biggest reason in your opinion that Jahmai has taken the leap that he has these last two, three weeks?

RICK BARNES: Well, one is his work ethic. It started -- he came in as a freshman, like most freshmen, not understanding what -- learning how to practice hard is a big thing, learning all the details that go into being a consistent, good college basketball player.

But at the end of last season, really as soon as we got back in the spring, we spent a lot of time together in the gym just totally reconstructing his shot to really help him there because he needed to do that. Because he is a guy that can drive the ball. He's got a great talent in the fact that he's a high-level competitor. That you're going to get from him every single night.

I think now, playing more minutes, he relies even more and more on the importance of being cardio tough, learning how to play through fatigue. And the fact that he right now -- I think if you had asked me at the start of the season if we're going to be in the NCAA in the first round game, our leading scorer was going to be he and Tyreke Key and Uros, I wouldn't have thought that.

But I think all their growth -- but he's worked hard. I know his teammates respect him because of what he does every single day. And having to compete against Santi, he would tell you, that's who he -- until he really became on the first team, that's who he went against every day. That's not easy to do because what Santi does when he's out there under the lights, he does every day in practice.

Q. Just from the perspective of health and prep, how much of a benefit is it to have this 24 hours in between in comparison to something like the SEC tournament where it is that nature of being back to back?

RICK BARNES: It's a huge difference. Like for instance, back to back is really difficult on a guy like Josiah who still honestly is working his way back to where he wants to be. But a day off is much different than just back to back.

Guys that play a lot of minutes, they need it. Their bodies and -- we're lucky that we've got a great trainer, great strength and conditioning coach, who if you guys knew what they did behind the scenes to try to get the recovery back for those guys that played those minutes. Because we know, again, tomorrow is going to be as hard a fought game, physical game as we'll ever be in.

Q. Rick, I'm sure Zakai is not the major contributor you've ever lost in the middle of the season. From your experience how long does it take for a team to adjust to a loss like that, and do you think it helps or hurts that it happened in the area of the season where there's a cluster of games and maybe not as many practices to have?

RICK BARNES: Well, it's tough when it happened to Zakai because we had been dealing with injuries -- you go back to, I think, the Mississippi State game on the road, we had two starters or two players that didn't play. I know Santi didn't play. I think he missed a couple games. Josiah certainly missed games, Julian missed games. We had different guys that are in key spots for us.

But Zakai had been the one guy that you go back to in late-game situations, most of our late-game situation package went through him. And to lose him -- and you go back to the Arkansas game, it was the first game that we went into to where we felt like, okay, now we're hitting our stride at the right time. Then obviously he got hurt early in the game, and we fought through that. I'm glad we were at home at that time because I thought we played really hard against a good Arkansas team.

But it's been different. At this time of year, that's probably the hardest position to overcome because of what his value to us was. But we done like we've done all year, we haven't made a big deal about it. We miss him and he knows it, but we just said, hey, someone else is going to have to pick up some slack and more guys are going to have to contribute.

These guys have been resilient, they really have, because our expectations are higher than anybody's, and when we lost some games coming down the stretch at the end, it can take its toll on you.

But we go in the film room, we look at it, show what we did wrong and say, let's see if we can go out and fix it. And they've never ever not -- never stopped trying to get better. But it's hard when you lose a key guy, and certainly Zakai is a key guy with what he was doing for us when we lost him.

Q. Josiah talked about that Michigan loss a minute ago. I'm curious, have you seen that loss motivate the team in the off-season and heading into this season?

RICK BARNES: Well, I knew when we left a year ago when we got beat, I knew that the devastation was there because they wanted to keep playing. But I think they also learned -- they talked about it, we obviously have talked about it, they've talked about it, how it's hard, it's really hard to win. Getting here is hard, and winning first-round games because of such parity now in college basketball, that getting started is one of the hardest things.

And then when you get going -- like I look at us, I can't imagine a 5 seed better than Duke right now, and I can't imagine how Houston feels having the year they have and having to play basically an 8, 9 seed winner on their home court. It's hard.

Some of it you don't understand with the way things happen. But I do think our guys talked about how hard it is, and they know that there can be no letdown. There can be -- you can't take anything for granted. Not that they did a year ago. I don't think they did. But it's a learning process.

It's something being here that you would never take for granted because again, there's a lot of teams that like to be here.

Q. How would you assess what Julian Phillips is giving you all right now and his minutes?

RICK BARNES: Again, you go back to Julian, I think there's certain injuries that are hard in the middle of the season. Groin pulls, hamstring pulls, those things are really difficult. They don't get better overnight. When you have a hip flexor like he had, it doesn't get better overnight. He's worked hard.

We felt, again, there's a guy that was starting to hit his stride, and then he had the problem with the hip flexor and it took him to come out of action really two and a half, three weeks before he could -- he was trying. Again, go back to the Texas A&M game, he and Josiah didn't play in that game. Josiah was overcoming a high ankle sprain. They tried. They were out in shootaround wanting to help the team any way they could, but they knew they couldn't do what they needed to do to help us win.

I think he's still finding his way to get back. I really do. We're going to need him tomorrow in a big way. We're going to need him tomorrow because his length and his mindset can help us.

But this is all new to him, too. It's his first time, and I know that -- do I think he's 100 percent now? I don't, but I know he's going to give us everything that he has.

Q. What did you think about Jonas defensively last night, and how important is he in his length tomorrow with Filipowski and Duke?

RICK BARNES: Well, our front line, their front line, it's going to be a lot of big guys on the court, and we need Jonas to do that. We need him to -- his length. I thought his length was a factor last night, too. I thought Uros had a really good -- got it going for us physically when he started the game yesterday.

But Jonas is going to be important. He is important. What he does with his length, we need him. We actually need him when he's open to shoot the ball because you guys know he's a good shooter. But we're going to need him. We're going to need him to play big tomorrow.

Q. I know basketball is a game of runs. Obviously everyone knows it. Sometimes you go on runs, sometimes you get run on a little bit. When you go through those stretches where it's sometimes hard to even get shots up because the turnovers are mounting, is there anything y'all obviously talked about as a staff or tried to figure out how to get these guys to get those things done quicker?

RICK BARNES: Yeah, we talk about it. Obviously we talk about taking care of the basketball a lot. That's one of our major -- you ask our guys what's important, they'll tell you defense, rebounding, taking care of the ball.

But I do, I go back to this year, we've had to adjust so many different times with different guys being in and out of our lineup, where I know that's been a part of it where we've had to adjust based on who we had that night and how we thought we had to play. So that's been a little bit of it.

Probably more of it than I really want to admit really. But the fact is our guys know that you have to do it. But last night you're playing against a team that's a good team and we had them on the ropes, and they make a couple shots and we miss free throws. You've got to make the free throws. And we did a good job in the first half, but as you said, it's a game of runs.

And we've got to -- again, the way we turned it over yesterday a couple times, we tripped over setting a screen, we tripped over our own man. I'm not sure on a couple of them what we were doing. We called a set, we didn't execute twice in those things, and those are the things that, again, we've got to make sure we don't have those blunders tomorrow.

Q. Rick, do you think your team, these guys have played in enough of these moments, in enough of these games against opponents like this to not kind of get bedazzled by the Duke name?

RICK BARNES: Yeah, you think about it, we've beaten the No. 1 seeds this year, I think a No. 2 seed. So yeah, we're play in a great basketball league, and again, I don't think -- these guys, first of all, they have a lot of respect for the name of Tennessee. We feel like we're a team that can compete with any team in the country, and these guys have shown this year certainly when we've been at full strength -- I don't know if we've been at full strength all year. Josiah wasn't with us at the start of the year.

But the fact is I think our guys have a great deal of respect for what they do, their work, and what they put in year-round to know that they belong wherever they play.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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