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March 17, 2010

Rick Barnes

Damion James

Justin Mason

Dexter Pittman


MODERATOR: We've been joined by forward Damion James, guard Justin Mason, and center Dexter Pittman. We'll open the floor for questions for the student-athletes.

Q. This program's been pretty successful in the NCAA Tournament. Is there something that Rick does or a certain way he prepares you for their event? Because it's obviously a different animal than just a regular season or Big 12 Tournament. Is there something that he does to get this program in a better position?
JUSTIN MASON: I don't think it's anything that we do different. I think it's just building the confidence of the team. Helping us stay a little relaxed during this time of the year. It's different from playing against a team that you play against every day in the Big 12.
So I think that's one part of the success.
DAMION JAMES: I think just the standards that the players before have set up before us. You know, it's almost like you didn't accomplish nothing if you didn't make the NCAA Tournament. So with that being said, we come in and with a goal and that's what we work for from the beginning of off-season.
DEXTER PITTMAN: I think it's like Mason said, Coach going around, building everybody's confidence up, even the younger guys. He tells us to go out there and have fun. I mean, you're not promised another game, so you might as well go out there and go hard and have fun.

Q. Do you guys kind of look at this tournament as a chance at redemption after the way the second half of the season has gone?
DEXTER PITTMAN: I mean, it's a new season. I really don't look at it as redemption. I mean, we're playing a different team out of our conference. So it should be a little -- I mean, I'm not going to say relaxed, but they haven't had much time to prepare for us. Knowing us coming out of our conference to a physical team, we've got the advantage right there just being physical and being on the inside.
JUSTIN MASON: I wouldn't say it's a chance for redemption. You know, I think we had a -- we're in the NCAA Tournament, so we're a good team. Regardless of how the season went, I guess everyone wanted us to stay undefeated. But I think it's prepared us to come into this tournament and help us the rest of the year we faced in the season, helped us to where we are now.

Q. So much has been made that at one time you were the No. 1 team. I saw the other day at the announcement show that only one other team, Alabama in 2003, had been as low a seed after being No. 1. Do you ever wish y'all hadn't been No. 1? Has that been like a stigma or a burden on you?
DEXTER PITTMAN: My thing being No. 1, everybody's going to gun at you. You've got a target on your back. But when we were No. 1, we really didn't realize it because we don't -- like Mason said, we don't go off rankings or whatever. So we just were playing. We know we had Texas in front of us. That was it. It wasn't the ranking or whatever.
JUSTIN MASON: I think the important part of the rankings is who is No. 1 at the end of the season. All those rankings and things really don't matter early in the season, because you never know who is No. 1. There have been three or four different No. 1s, and teams with the same records that are out of the top 25. Some guys have ten losses in the top 25.
It's really based on who is No. 1 at the end of the season, and that's what we'd rather be.
DAMION JAMES: I think it's like being No. 1 was cool, but like Dexter said with Texas being on your jersey, you always took the opponent's best shot. And now it's like who is No. 1 now is basically it's 0-0. And 65 teams playing for one goal. And the team that's better that night for 40 minutes is going to win.
So we're going out there with attitude. But people forget we were the best team in the country. We're still the same team. We just have to go out there with that swagger and that demeanor and go out there and go at it.

Q. In your mind, what new happened since you were 17-0 and ranked No. 1?
DAMION JAMES: No comment on that.
JUSTIN MASON: I guess going and playing in the Big 12, which is a really great conference. I don't know if many people understand how good that conference is. It's hard to get wins. We didn't do the things we needed to do night in and night out to get the win that's we needed.
I think that's the only thing that happened.
I don't think our team just went down the drain. I think it was a case of us playing teams that were equal and talented as us.
DEXTER PITTMAN: Yeah, just being in the Big 12, you're not the only physical team there. I mean, every team's physical. A&M, you've got Oklahoma and Baylor. I mean Baylor, they're rolling right now. They changed their whole program around.
People overlook the Big 12 as being one of the best conferences in the country. If you go on on the road and play at A&M, which is like the toughest place to play, one of the toughest places to play in America, I mean, it's kind of tough. Especially if you have a young team, too.

Q. I was wondering if you could describe Aminu. Does he remind you of anybody you guys have seen the last year or two? And what jumps out at you about his game?
DAMION JAMES: Me personally being a forward, he's a really good guy. He's athletic, explosive, he can finish around the rim. He can bring the floor down the court. He's just a great, great player. He's going to be a good match-up for us, for all our forwards to see if we can contain him.
So we look forward to the match-up. We really don't know much about him. But what we've seen, he's really explosive, athletic. About 6'9", 6'10", he does a lot for that team.

Q. Does he remind you of anybody?
DAMION JAMES: I don't like to put labels on anybody. Maybe Dexter can. I don't know.
DEXTER PITTMAN: I mean, the only person that I think he reminds me of is the guy on our team, Gary Johnson. He can play just like him. He's explosive, inside and out. He's just physical. That's why I'm thinking about the game versus Wake. They got Aminu, we've got Gary. Gary can do the same thing he can do. Hopefully we can get him in foul trouble early and it will be a whole different team without him. Then we can have Gary on the court still.

Q. Can you talk a little about the challenge of guarding Ishmael Smith? The fact that he can go so fast, stop, start, go again, and what kind of challenge does that pose for you to try to guard him?
JUSTIN MASON: Well, it's going to be a fun competition. You know, I compare him to Dogus, which I haven't seen anyone faster than Dogus in practice. So I think that's who you would have to try to guard him like. He's a great guard. He has great change of pace, and I think that's what makes him so good. He's very important to that team. We've just got to try to contain him and limit his transition looks and him creating in the paint.

Q. The way you guys closed the season or the last half of the season, how does that affect you confidence-wise going into this? Are you all immune to it? Are you paying any attention to the criticism that the team has gotten, specifically Coach Barnes has gotten about how you guys have played lately?
DAMION JAMES: No. The way I grew up, you don't listen to what he said/she said, you know. It happens. So it's like you move on. You know, I know a lot of teams that were in a slump just as well as we was, so, you know, it has its pros, it has its cons.
We had to come out, as I told everybody, this is a new season. We're looking forward to going out and playing tomorrow because it's a new 40 minutes. If we go out and win these games, people are going to forget all about what happened in the past. We already have forgotten about it. We've already taken a step forward. With that being said, we have to keep staying focused. Focus on our goals and go out and compete in this game tomorrow.
DEXTER PITTMAN: I was just going to say I was raised the same way, like Damion said. You don't go out there listening to critics or people that write things on blogs on websites. Those people get paid for what they do or they get props for whatever they do. Us being a team, we stick together because we're like brothers. We really don't feed off of that.

Q. Coach Barnes said the other day this season is like watering a plant: You water it and water it and one day you hope it sprouts. Has anything been done the last day this week that might make that happen? Has there been a change or anything like that that could make that come about?
JUSTIN MASON: I wouldn't say there is anything we've done in the last day or two. I think what he means by watering the plant is probably the season. You know, the season that we had, you know. We scheduled good non-conference games. We played in the Big 12. You know, we came out and we're in the NCAA Tournament.
You know, this is the time that you're supposed to sprout. I think that's maybe the analogy he was trying to get to.

Q. You mentioned that Coach Barnes has tried to do certain things to make sure the team is loose and confident going into this game. What specifically has he talked to you about or done to make sure that happens?
DEXTER PITTMAN: I mean, I saw him today at practice going up to each individual player and just talking to them, telling them, hey, man, you're going to come out and you're going to do this. You're going to have a good game.
Like me he told me for tomorrow I've got to be explosive and bouncy. He's, like, I'm going to come out and dominate tomorrow. And he was going around telling Clint Chapman whenever he gets his chance to go, just go in and give it all and have fun. Don't think about, oh, I wish I could have did this or that.
I mean, he's just trying to keep us levelheaded and remind us that we're here for business, but also here for fun. Because the NCAA Tournament is once-in-a-lifetime. Once it's gone, it's gone. You can't go back.
MODERATOR: Coach, offer a couple thoughts on coming into New Orleans, your preparations, and we'll take some he questions.
COACH BARNES: Well, obviously, this is a great time of the year to be playing basketball. We're all excited about it. We realize we've got a very tough opening round match-up here with Wake Forest, a team that in so many ways our seasons kind of mirror each other.
Coming in, I think our guys have really one, they're excited about being here and being part of this tournament. They've had good work. We've had some good days work getting ready, and it will be a long day tomorrow.
Again, I just know this is a great time of year to be playing, and they're excited about it, as I am about being here with them.

Q. People say that old phrase that you're at your wit's end trying to figure things out. Did you get to that point some point here in the last few weeks?
COACH BARNES: I don't know. It's just that we've had to go through so many growth spurts with our teams. Early in the year when everybody was looking at us and we were winning games. Obviously, most of those games came outside the conference play, and once you get into conference play people start guarding you differently.
It got to the point where we had the lineup on the floor other than when we lost Varez, you know, people started really backing off Dogus. They were sitting in Dexter's lap and not a lot of room for other guys, Avery or whoever might be in there, or Damion to get work.
The fact is it's difficult if they're not guarding certain guys on the floor, really the space he's not where he needs to be. You have to start tweaking your offense. Those guys were defensively ready to help us. They were doing the job on that end. Our younger guys weren't at the point where we could count on them to consistently play them. Then maybe we'd take one of those guys off the floor.
So we'd have to do a little something different there. If we ever got a point where we could take them both off the floor, we had to do more there. So we never got into a flow.
But in some ways we've grown through a lot of this. And I just have to believe that -- when you go through all that, there is no doubt that you get to a point. We struggled at times with free throws. You get to that point where I do think confidence in some ways becomes a factor. Then the inconsistency, the unknown. But, yet, they've worked through it. As a group they've continued to try to fight and do what they can do.
Their preparation for this has been really, really good. There is no doubt that they were as a group our expectation is higher than to be 9-and-7 in league play. But, again, I told them you start out the year with a number of different goals, but the biggest goal is to get here and be part of this tournament.
I really felt good about it Sunday when it popped up. They were excited because they know what this is about.

Q. From your experience in tournaments all these years, do you see anything in practice or from the team that would suggest to you that they've learned everything you've been trying to get through to them? And they're finally ready to be more consistent?
COACH BARNES: Again, you hope. You hope they grow. What you want this time of year is energy. I think more than anything. I think attitude is important as anything right now. That you're excited. I think you have to be rested both mentally and physically.
But, yeah, you hope. But based on what they've done in practice, I like the way they've gone about it. It's 40 minutes. I'd like to see -- people ask me this time of year, Guards have to play? I think it's the time of year if you want to win and keep moving you have to have a lot of guys playing. I don't think it's just guard play.
But, again, we're here. Everybody starts over again tomorrow. So I do know this. The team that we're playing on any given night could beat any team in the country, and I feel that way about our team. On any given night we play to the ability that I think we can, we've got a chance against anybody.

Q. Do you feel like -- again, the players have to answer so many questions, what's wrong, what's wrong, what's wrong? If they never quite made it to No. 1, do you think it might be easier on them right now?
COACH BARNES: No, again, the questions that people ask -- I don't know how people want them to answer them. If you watch us play, at a point in time this year, everybody had asked a question what's wrong with Dexter Pittman? Dexter Pittman has two guys sitting this his lap and one guy behind him. It's not hard to figure out.
What we did is we tried to tell Justin and Dogus early, I told them: You have 300 misses, you can use them all. You can use them all in one game if you get that many. But they have to feel like they can do that and shoot it.
But the problems are, again, it's very hard to play this game if teams aren't guarding players. It's very hard to play this game if you're not making free throws when that happens. So it's a real fine line.
Then all of those things start playing into your head a little bit, where I do think players can lose confidence. I do think the guys got tired of dealing with it. Everybody asks what's wrong because they didn't want to sell out their teammates. They didn't want to say what I just said. I'm not selling out any of our players. The fact is that's what happened. And those guys were very loyal to each other.
That is the one thing that I appreciate, because they want guys to take shots, they want guys to do it. But that's what I do appreciate about them this year. They never got to the point where they were going to say it's hard to score out there when -- you know, they watch tape. They saw it every time. They saw what was going on. But they tried to fight through it. Work together. They saw every day what was going on with our team in practice. They knew what guys were ready to play.
I remember one game when we were going back and forth with our starting lineup, and Jordan Hamilton had a great day in practice. That day when I went home I said maybe he's at a point now where we can put him in the starting lineup. And the next day, he wasn't very good. I remember saying to him, Jordan, I wanted to start you, but based on what you did today I'm not going to do it because you don't understand consistency.
He said, Coach, the only guy that should be in that starting lineup is Justin Mason. He should be there. Every day he comes to practice, he does everything that I wish I could do every day. So he said, You said all along, doesn't matter who starts. I think it does because I think he's earned it.
When you have guys thinking like that, you appreciate it. And he would tell you I want to be able to do that, but he's young and he's not able to do that as consistently as you want him to. But that is most typical freshmen. That's what they go through.
He's tried to grow. J'Covan's tried to grow, he's played more minutes than we would have liked him to play early. But those three guys in their own individual ways have done pretty good things at times.

Q. That attitude with not selling guys out on. We've seen it in other teams other sports where they do it. Is that something you teach or do you think it just came naturally to them not to complain about teammates?
COACH BARNES: We know we're all in this together. There is no doubt about it. And, again, it's hard. They talk about it. And amongst themselves I do know they've talked about how at times -- again, it is what it is, and we are what we are right now. And we are where we are.
But I think that when you go through what they go through and they work as hard as they work, and I do think they have grown that way. I think the freshmen, all freshmen go through a period where they think it's probably going to be easier than they think once they get into it.
Once those guys got into it and realized night in and night out how hard they had to play, they became even more appreciative of those older guys when they watched how hard those older guys would play.
I do think it helped those guys understand, hey, we've got to get to that level. But I really do believe if you sit down with a couple of the younger guys and talked to them, they would say they've learned a lot in terms of intensity and effort. But as I said, as a team they have stuck together. They haven't sold each other out. They compete every day.
That's why I said we've grown. We realize we are where we are right now, and I think they feel good. I think they're confident. I'll be surprised if we don't play well. I really will be.

Q. You guys scored 82 points a game, and they like to push with Ish Smith. Do you expect an up-tempo game tomorrow?
COACH BARNES: I think it will be a pretty quick game. I hope we're quicker. But he's a one-man fast break. He is as fast as any player we've played against in a long time. He's got great change of pace. He's a one-man break. It takes a team to get back in transition against him.
Like any team, they get out in transition, and they're a very, very dangerous team. But, yeah, I mean, that's how we want to play. That's when we play our best basketball. You know, people have asked me over the past couple of weeks, Why have we stopped running? I can assure you, we've never wanted to stop running. But I think that goes with maybe getting tentative at times mentally. But we do want to get up and down the floor.

Q. You've been extremely successful the last eight years in this tournament. I think you're 16-8. Is there something specific that you do different for this than anybody else? Or is it just a product of growing over the years that makes you successful?
COACH BARNES: I do think what's important as a program. I mean, one, I think your attitude, the way you go about it. I think if the players see you change and do a lot of different things, if you look stressed or, you know -- I think they read it.
I think what's really important this time of year is being fresh mentally and physically. And I do think -- and, again, I don't think; I know -- that back years ago when I'd get into this tournament I would think, boy, this is it. We've got to do more. We overprepared. We got away from what, you know -- again, this time of the year, I don't think it's so much about X's and O's. I don't. I think it's about the mental part of it. Going into it with energy and being fresh. Going in to play to win.
There's been times that I know teams way back when we struggled and it was a lot because of the way I think I handled it. The way I changed too much. And so we've just -- the thing I think you've got to get your guys to commit, it is great to be playing this time of the year. You've got to say you've earned it, you're here, now let's let it go. Let's go with it.
But that's what I'd like to see. I just want to see them go out and compete. Obviously we've got a game plan and know what we've got to do. But it's still the mental part and physical part of being fresh.

Q. Given how the team did finish the season, what do you do to make sure that their confidence is high and that they're in a good frame of mind going into this game?
COACH BARNES: Again, the regular season's over with. It's over and done with. Regardless of how we felt -- again, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that as a program we're happy with the way we were in conference play, because we weren't. But yet the one thing that I made it perfectly clear to them is, you know what, there are a lot of teams that would like to be here where you are.
But I could sense, even before that, they were excited to get ready to get out. This is the time of year you play for.
So, again, I'll be real shocked if we don't play with the kind of confidence that I think we're capable of and the attitude, because I just feel good about these guys. I feel good about where we are, and I just want to see us go out and put it out there.
I think if we do for 40 minutes, anything can happen.

Q. You talked Monday about the kind of energy that you had seen from J'Covan Brown on Sunday. Has that carried through the week? Are you encouraged by that?
COACH BARNES: We really have had some good days here, not long, but short and sweet and to the point. Yeah, he was really good. Jordan has been good. Alexis Wangmene has been excellent.
Yeah, it's been good. And he's carried it over. I hope they have the same excitement. And they do. I hope I -- we do. I can feel that excitement like we had early in the year. I can feel it with them. I'll be surprised if we don't come out and play with a lot of energy.
But J'Covan has been good. He's been consistently good the last couple of days.

Q. I think you used an analogy earlier this week about the watering of plants and you keep watering it until you hope it sprouts. Have you seen signs that this team is ready to do that?
COACH BARNES: Yeah, I do. I really can only reiterate. I do feel good about it. I think our preparation, our mental part, the focus has been really good. And this would be a good time to sprout right now, it really would be (smiling).
But if not, we'll keep watering it. But, yeah, I mean, I do. I honestly am sitting here and I really do feel good about where we are right now. You know, people can look -- you talk about the seeds in the tournament, and obviously you look at the first two lines and you would think it's easy getting started. But after those first-round games, I don't think there is any easy games anywhere.
I know a couple years ago when we were a No. 1 seed, I think we opened up against UNC Asheville, and I can't begin to tell you how nervous I was because everybody kept saying is there going to be a 1-16 upset, and you don't want to make history that way. So there is a lot of pressure in this thing to start with and get going. But that is one of the big keys here. You've got to go play, and you've got to play to win.
And I do, it's mental to me. It's more mental this time of the year than anything else out there.

Q. So when you say that you have seen signs, that is the biggest thing is the mental aspect?
COACH BARNES: The mental side of it. Yeah, the bounce, I think we've had a little pop in our step. Yeah, I do think that -- it's been good. They've got me excited, I can tell you that. I mean, I was excited anyway because I know how difficult it is to get here every year. But their energy has helped me, which they need to help me more than I need to help them. Because I'm older than those guys. They should have energy.
But, again, they've been good. I think we're all excited about where we are right now.

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