Tennessee was bounced out of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night, losing to No. 9 seed FAU in New York City. The Volunteers got out to a small lead early, but eventually the Owls came through when it mattered most. Tennessee gave up some key offensive rebounds, and once again, the offense disappeared in crunchtime.
It was a sight that we’ve grown all too familiar with, and it ultimately ended up costing them their season. After the game, head coach Rick Barnes reacted to the loss, along with Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James.
RICK BARNES: Congratulations to Florida Atlantic. Good basketball team, played well. I thought they made shots at the right time. I thought they came up with some really big offensive rebounds at a time when we really needed to finish our defensive possession. Defensively they played hard. Again, I just really congratulate them.
Certainly proud of the effort that these guys have given us all year, through tough times with injuries, but when it ends like this, it’s always disappointing because we want it all and came up short.
But proud of our team, too, for being in this position with a chance to move on. Again, tonight Florida Atlantic, they won, they played hard, and they deserve to move on.
Q. What did they do better offensively against you guys in the second half?
SANTIAGO VESCOVI: First of all, they definitely made shots. They made the shots they had to make. Like Coach said, they got big offensive rebounds. They ran a couple actions that were really good basketball actions. They knock them down. I think the biggest thing was offensive rebounding for them.
JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: I just agree with what Santi said. I can’t really add on anything, but just echo what he said.
Q. How disappointing is this given the way the season started for you, to have it end right here?
JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: Well, I mean, we’ve been through so much in the past however long the season has been going on, and I feel like a lot of people don’t know all the things that we’ve been through internally. So even to make it this far is a blessing. People counted us out after the second game that we lost to Colorado. They told us our season was over then.
But we didn’t hear any of that. We heard it, but we didn’t listen to it. We stayed resilient, and I think that if you guys and everybody outside of our locker room knew all the things that we went through, they’d be proud of us. I know we’re proud of ourselves.
We know we wanted more, but there’s so much stuff that went on, injuries and people in and out of the lineup where a lot of people would just quit. But I give a lot of credit to my teammates and our coaching staff. Nobody in that locker room gave up on us, and I’m just so proud of my guys. Obviously I’m disappointed, but I’m proud that we were able to come this far.
SANTIAGO VESCOVI: He just said it.
Q. Josiah, I know you’re still digesting this one, but when you look back at the first half, how much do you think you’ll feel like that was a missed opportunity considering how many shots they missed and you were only able to go up five or seven points at halftime?
JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: I mean, I think it was — obviously we went into halftime with a five-point lead. Obviously we missed open shots, they missed open shots. But we were disappointed in the way we played. We knew we had to play tougher, but we were up five points, so…
Q. As hard as this is right now for you guys in this moment, for both of the student-athletes, what do you reflect upon this season that you are proud of? I know you said a lot of things happened this season that not a lot of people know about, so when you look at that adversity, what are you proud of?
SANTIAGO VESCOVI: Definitely everything Josiah said. We’ve been through a lot of things, and we were in a position where most other people would just quit or just give up on the season and just wait for the next one to come up.
I never had that feeling from this team. I think the whole team, through adversity, we stuck together. We couldn’t get it done today, but during the whole season, I think we all stuck together. We had each other’s back, and we just fought. I think we fought through everything we could, and yeah, we’re disappointed that we lost today, but I think this team gave everything it could.
JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: I’m just proud of the way people stepped up. I’m proud of the way Jahmai Mashack stepped up, proud of the way Julian Phillips stepped up, proud of the way Tobe Awaka stepped up, proud of the way Jonas Aidoo stepped up, proud of the way B.J. Edwards stepped up. Guys were put in positions that they weren’t particularly ready for and they were thrown in the fire. And I feel like they handled it the best they could. And they came in each and every day with their hardhats on trying to get better, expecting to get better and that’s all you can hope for out of your teammates.
We’ve got a group of guys that are just resilient and they want to keep getting better. I’m proud of all my teammates but especially the guys that had to step up and play bigger roles and bigger minutes.
Q. From your vantage point, what went wrong in that 18-2 run in the second half?
RICK BARNES: Well, I thought, one, in the first half they had some shots; we dodged that. But when they started scoring, our offense wasn’t very good. We gave up too many drives. And then along with that, offensive rebounds where we let them get downhill, a couple situations where those — we did a better job in the second half staying down on shot fakes.
Early in the first half that’s how we were getting into so much rotation because we were leaving our feet, went under a few ball screens. But I thought offensively we didn’t — we needed to continue to put pressure on them at the rim, whether it was throwing it inside or whether it was driving the ball, and we didn’t do enough of that.
When we got the ball there, we needed to finish more to continue to keep pressure on them to where they had to guard us. Then they got some separation, they got relaxed, and I mean, they’re a really good shooting team. They shoot it.
The offensive rebounds were — those were big. We normally don’t do that, but we did today.
Q. You cited the offensive rebounds but just the rebounding overall, I think pregame myself and a lot of people would have thought you would have had a big advantage on the glass and they out-rebounded you.
RICK BARNES: Well, again, we wanted to, and obviously we needed Jahmai Mashack. You saw what he was able to do with driving the ball. We needed more of that from more than one player. We needed our post players because they were staying out there. Really we could get the ball inside. If our post guys would get the post-up, and then they did start digging down a little bit more. But early in the game it was wide open.
They were really hugging up to our perimeter guys, which a lot of teams have done to us this year. And it’s something we expected today, and the only way you’re going to make them change is if you’re really scoring at a high clip.
Then when we got there a couple times in the second half, the ball should have been passed out because we needed to make some of those perimeter shots. And, again, when they put three guys around the ball, it’s got to get out of your hands.
Again, we needed to be more aggressive going at the basket, I thought, in the second half. And then they were — again, they didn’t change a whole lot other than what they were doing in the first half. They’d run what we call a little bit of notch action. But I thought we allowed them to get downhill and not guard the ball the way we needed to.
Q. Why did you decide to stick with the two-big lineup in the second half and not go four guards?
RICK BARNES: Because again, the way they were guarding us. And again, when we go more guards, we don’t feel like we get that much more dribble penetration out of it. We need to get more of that. Again, we felt like early in the game, you saw we were scoring at the rim, and we started — we should have kept going at it, which we were trying to do, but then when they dig in there, we’ve got to kick it out.
You know what, when you talk about games and substitution, we’re around these guys so much and we read their body language, we feel like we know where they are. Some of that has to do with that answer not just on the offensive end but it’s the defensive end, too. We had some breakdowns with certain players today that we just felt like they weren’t locked in as much as they needed to be.
And then some guys were in arguably one of the biggest games of their lives, and you could just — body language, we just didn’t feel like they were locked in as much as we needed them to be. You’d expect them to be, but it’s a big stage.
Q. You said after the Texas game in January that you wanted to see this team improve through February. Do you feel like that ever happened, and if not, why not?
RICK BARNES: Well, Tom Satkowiak told me we haven’t had a healthy team since February the 8th with everybody healthy. If you ask me, did we improve, we did. Because when you have to tweak and change stuff as much as we had to just to put guys in a position to be comfortable — I mean, Jahmai Mashack hasn’t played point guard until February since he’s been here. He’s done it in practice in terms of just — but to put him out there where he’s really trying to learn how to run a team and where he had given us — where he had been so good rebounding the ball, playing off the ball.
Tyreke Key has never played point guard until he came to Tennessee, and he would tell you he’s more of a scorer. Yeah, there’s no doubt we’ve improved or we wouldn’t be here today.
The fact is it’s always disappointing when you know you’re close to going after the goal that I think we all chase, and that’s to be the last team standing. But as a group, yeah, we got better, or we wouldn’t have made it this far.
Q. Your seniors go a combined 14 of 50 from the floor. As a coach, just how hard is it to watch a group of guys kind of struggle collectively like that?
RICK BARNES: It’s hard. Again, I could sit here and talk about a lot of different things, but the fact is those guys have been through a lot. They’ve dealt with — Josiah’s, I think, dealt with a lot of injuries, but yet he’s trying to do everything he could to help this team. And Santi the same way. Olivier, obviously we wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for what he did the other day.
I’d like to think that Uros certainly helped us. He got a little bit too emotional tonight and it came back on him. But these guys have won a lot of games for us, and it’s hard. I’m telling you, it’s hard being in the locker room with these guys when you know how hard they’ve worked, and I would tell you that they’ve maxed out in a lot of good ways.
Again, would I like to sit here and tell you I wish we had our full allotment of players and teams? Yeah, but we didn’t. I think it’s a real compliment to our seniors because they’re the ones that continue to stay together and didn’t get down on each other, tried to help pull the young guys along with them.
But I feel for them because I know that’s not — when they look at it, they’re not going to be happy with it, because again, it’s hard to get here. I can only tell you we’re proud of this group of seniors and what they’ve done with our program.
Q. Sticking with the seniors, it may be too soon to answer this question, but assuming that was their last game, your four guys, one from Uruguay, one from Serbia, one from Finland and one from Charleston, South Carolina, came together and got super close. How are you going to remember that group?
RICK BARNES: Well, they’re special because they went through the COVID together. Where college basketball is today with the transfer portal and at the end of the year, everybody has got options now to do this or do that.
I will remember that they in so many ways just represented the University of Tennessee in a first-class way. They created a great love affair with Rocky Top and our fan base, which I’ve told many people I think it’s the best out there. They’re what we want our program to be about, high character, come from great families, great work ethics.
And really of that group there’s not one selfish guy in that group. What they’ve done for our program — we’ve said when we came eight years ago, we want to be here every year, there’s no question about that. When it ends, it seems like so abruptly that you look back. Like tonight, the Sweet 16 is something to be proud about. Again, when you get there, you want more. You want an Elite 8, you want a Final Four, you want a National Championship game.
The fact that these guys, again, kept climbing and trying to work every year, and I told them in a couple weeks we’ll look back at it and realize they’ve got a lot to be proud of.
Q. You spoke about how hard it is to make this tournament. With so many different conferences represented in the Sweet 16, what can you say about the state of college basketball?
RICK BARNES: Well, again, this is a game that it doesn’t matter if players come in and play one year and leave or whatever. There’s nothing like college basketball. I mean, when guys leave, new guys emerge, new guys come on. This time of year, stars are born.
I think that there’s a lot in our game that we’re going to have to talk about and think about. Obviously through the months, people have talked about the transfer portal, the NIL, this, that, whatever. I’ve always said this and I’ve always believed it. You’ve got to build the program the way you want to represent your university, and there’s enough guys to do that.
I think you’ve got to have a great coaching staff, and at Tennessee we’ve got the best administrators in the country that are committed to giving our student-athletes the very, very best opportunities and experiences.
You know what, I’d like to think that other universities do, too. But I’ve been doing it a long time, and I know that’s — I like to say I’d like to see them all do what we do at the University of Tennessee with our administrators, not just basketball. Football, baseball, you name it.
I just think going forward, the game is always going to be a great game. There’s nothing that captivates our country like this NCAA Tournament, nothing. Because every state in our country has a chance to be represented some way, somehow.
And a team like Florida Atlantic, think about what it does for them and their school. Every year there’s somebody like that. Kansas State, a team that was picked last in their league, here their two teams are playing for a Final Four, and that’s what makes it March Madness.
But don’t ever, ever, ever take for granted how hard it is to get here to start with, and then how hard it is to win a game and then another game because it’s really, really hard.
Again, I think we’re going to — the game is going to continue to be what it is, and I do think it’ll continue to grow and get better.