March 14, 2009
CLAUDE FELTON: We'll continue with Tennessee. Opening comments from Coach Pearl.
COACH PEARL: It was a terrific basketball game. Very high scoring. I thought the players made the great plays. You had to enjoy the performances of some of the individuals. You know, obviously Wayne Chism with a career high.
Just offensively played with great fluidity. You know, Tyler Smith just being the difference maker in his match up. Made so many tough shots. He's obviously our glue.
I thought we got very good point guard play from Bobby Maze tonight with five assists and one turnover. You know, defensively we struggled with the ball screen. And we know we're going to see an awful lot of ball screens tomorrow from Mississippi State. So we're going to have to work to improve that.
We are very focused on the opportunity to prove who the best team is in the SEC. We don't know that yet. But tomorrow we'll have an opportunity with the victory if we can win, to be the best team in the league. But it would take victory tomorrow for us to be able to say that.
Q. This is a team now the way you're playing that everybody expects to see at the start of the year. What happened in the past four, five weeks? You're playing loose, having fun. Flying up and down the court. Points are coming early. What's going on?
Wayne Chism: We're coming together as a team, and that's the biggest thing we need to be focusing on. We're always staying together now and playing with passion out there.
Tyler Smith: The same things you said. We're having fun, we're getting up and down the court. I mean, we're just together as a team now. Everybody's together. It's not like one guy will go out. I mean, it's all together. It's a team, and that's what we've been looking for all year.
Q. When you left Auburn, you were pretty disappointed. You felt like they beat you to a lot of loose balls. How much did you guys talk about that before this game? Did Coach show you any film clips of that game?
Wayne Chism: He didn't show us no film. But that's all he preached to us. We've got to man up out there and that's what we did tonight. We knew the refs were going to let us play. And everybody was telling everybody in the huddle. Let's man up, rebound and defend. That's what we did, and we got most of the loose balls that we had gotten out there.
Q. When you look at the other side of the bracket, Mississippi State comes out of there, what are your thoughts about that? Particularly, you guys and Varnardo?
Wayne Chism: Well, looking at Varnardo, he had 7 blocks against LSU. Then they had another big man. But they were going at it in that game, and Mississippi State played up to their level and came out with a great win against a tough team.
Tyler Smith: I mean, Varnardo is just down in the paint he changes a lot of shots. Today he showed why he got the Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC.
Q. What were you thinking when Wayne went on that three point run? I hadn't seen that from him before?
Tyler Smith: You haven't seen it before?
Q. In games. In games.
Tyler Smith: Wayne came out shooting like c /HRO* today. I mean, he was coming down the court just letting it go. And I said hey, he hit his first two, give Wayne the ball (laughing).
Q. Tyler, just want to ask you about motivation. Like tomorrow you'll be playing a team that's kind of fighting for its NCAA life. How do you be as motivated as the team you're going up against?
Tyler Smith: They're fighting for the NCAA life, and we're fighting for a great seed. It goes both ways. We're just trying to play our basketball. We know we can do things that haven't been done in a long time in SEC history. That's what we're trying to do.
Q. Just want to ask you, Coach talked yesterday about the history of the program and not playing them many Saturdays, and certainly not many Sundays. Does that motivate you to know how long it's been since you've been in a position to get an SEC title?
Wayne Chism: It's been a while. Since I've been in the school. I've played in this tournament three times and came up short a lot. To finally play on a Sunday, that's very good. It shows that whoever Coach goes out to get, it doesn't matter who is their big top name or not.
They're going to come in and play hard for Coach. That's what we came in to do this week. We came in hungry and continue to play basketball together. And that's how we're playing again on Sunday.
Q. Last year was a painful exit with the Hill turnaround over the wrong shoulder. The other day you told me this is a new place. Does it feel like a new season for you? Can you reflect on last year's pain? Did you bring that with you as a motivator, and just your thoughts on,I guess, the other day you indicated it was kind of a new season for you?
Wayne Chism: I said it was a new season. We're in Tampa. We ain't in Atlanta. We've been in Atlanta the past three years, two years since I've been here. And now we're in a new place. It's warm out here, and I'm feeling very comfortable. I want to stay instead of going back to the cold weather.
But staying here and playing on Sunday is great. That's what I came to this school for is to win the championship, and I'm going to play for one tomorrow.
CLAUDE FELTON: We'll continue with questions for Coach Pearl.
Q. Jeff Lebo, this is actually a two part question. First let me ask you, do you think Auburn is a team that deserves to get into the NCAA Tournament? And then, second, Jeff Lebo just said he's not even sure if this tournament, the SEC will receive its automatic qualifier because of all the negativity and the cloud of negativity that's been put on the conference just this entire season as far as being a quality conference, if you will. Can you talk about both, please?
COACH PEARL: Well, I'll start off by having to answer the question whether or not we're a quality conference. It's a great basketball conference. We've got a two time defending National Champion the last couple of years in Florida.
We've got one of the most tradition rich programs in the history of college basketball in Kentucky. And what makes this conference so good is neither one of those teams are in the Final Four here in Tampa. That speaks to the commitment that the SEC has placed on men's basketball.
I do think Auburn is going to receive very strong consideration for an NCAA Tournament bid. They've got 22 wins. They were 10 6 in conference play. They won 9 out of the last 10 games heading into this one. And there are only two losses in the last 12 games are at LSU and this one here to Tennessee.
Some of their early season work they've had some injuries. And the NCAA Tournament does pay attention to that. The committee pays attention to that. They lost some games early on with some missed free throws and some injuries.
But since they've gotten healthy, they've been right there as one of the top three teams, in my mind, in the SEC. And so, I do hope they get very strong consideration, and I hope our league is able to get four or five teams to the dance.
Q. What are the biggest challenges Mississippi State presents to you tomorrow?
COACH PEARL: Couple challenges. Obviously, a tremendous, tremendously well coached basketball team. Rick Stansbury does as good a job as anybody in this league. They shoot the three ball.
They'll put four guys on the floor that can really shoot the ball. We struggled in ball screen defense today, and they'll spread us and ball screen us. Smaller bodied guys recover quickly. Mississippi State, I don't think had but one guy, Brian Johnson, and maybe a couple that are over 200 pounds.
The guys that play a lot of minutes are athletic. They're long and they're lean. And they'll bounce back.
So they have that advantage, I think. And then finally, they've got the best defensive player in the country in Jarvis Varnardo. It's going to be interesting to see tomorrow. He had 7 blocks today. You know, we'll do what we have to do to mix our stuff inside and out. But he presents a tremendous defensive challenge the way he defends the paint.
Q. Do you think the way your team played in these two games back to back is even better than the way it played in South Carolina and Florida when you won those back to back?
COACH PEARL: I think the quality of our play was just as good. I think the fact that we did it in the hostile environment of Florida and South Carolina where the SEC is completely on the line.
Our backs were completely against the wall. Three, four weeks ago when you looked at Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee. We were the only team that had to go on the road and play those three teams.
We came out of there 2 1 on the road. So the significance of getting on the road and playing was important. But I do think in 4 out of our last 5 games we've played the best basketball that we've played all year.
Q. You started your run here down the stretch when you beat Mississippi State in Knoxville. Since then you've been great. What happened to get your up tempo Mojo back? The stuff you had last year, you had different players, but you're finally backing up tempo, and the guys are cheering and having fun and shooting the ball.
COACH PEARL: I think if you look at the field goal percentage defense in those last five games and our ability to rebound the basketball, we had 31 defensive rebounds. Auburn had nine offensive rebounds.
So there were 40 opportunities and we got 31 of them. That gives you a chance to rebound and run. So our defense has improved. Our rebounding has improved. Therefore, we've gotten more opportunities to get out in transition.
I think four assists at Kentucky, and the fact that we're celebrating 100 years of Tennessee basketball, and that was not a proud moment. We were embarrassed at how we played. And I think since that time the team continues to say we're playing together as a team. Offensively, defensively, and understanding that's what it takes in order for us to be successful.
Q. Can you just discuss your team's resiliency in that second half? Putting two good halves hasn't been something that you've been guaranteed to do. But two nights in a row you've done that. Tonight Auburn cut it to six a few times and you've always had an answer. Can you just talk about that?
COACH PEARL: I think you go along the lines with the idea that there are too many weapons. You know, I thought Cameron Tatum got some really good minutes there in the second coming off the bench. Between he and Scotty Hopson we had 21 points from our two guard position.
So when we go to our bench and we don't drop off that well. I thought Emmanuel Negedu played a little bit better tonight. Reynaldo Wooldridge had a big rebounding and a couple of big possessions. I think those guys coming off the bench kind of buy your best players a little bit of time so you can hang in there.
J.P. Prince hurt his shoulder again, and wasn't, you know, wasn't as effective. Yet we were able to withstand that. And Tyler's such a warrior. He's such a competitor. He played a lot of minutes last night. He played a lot of minutes tonight. And Tyler plays so hard that he really hadn't carried the ball. He played 19 minutes in the first half when both Wayne and J.P. had two fouls.
So, I just think in answer to your question, I think the depth.
Q. Before this tournament started, you speculated on the NCAA seeding. What do you think is on the line tomorrow in terms of what kind of seed you can get for the championship?
COACH PEARL: I think if we won the SEC Championship we'd be in the you know, I'm not a bracket on the. I did not go to med school. So I have no real degree on the subject. But I'd say if we're winning the SEC Tournament puts us in the 5, 4 range. I think the SEC Tournament champion and the No. 2 strength of schedule, and our RPI being something in the low 20's, maybe even now in the teens. Give us a shot at that. But we've got work to do to get there. That's all speculation.
CLAUDE FELTON: We'll get opening comments from Coach Lebo.
COACH LEBO: Well, first like to congratulate Tennessee. I thought they played awfully well tonight. Especially on offensively. When they score like that, shoot the ball like that, again, I think they're a Top 10 basketball team. I've always said that.
But they really got on out of the gate shooting the basketball from the perimeter, especially Chism. Five men that can shoot the basketball. When he's on fire like that out there, it certainly presents a lot of problems because you're not used to defending that at the five position.
But our team just battled and battled. We had a couple of shots and a couple of maybe fast break opportunities that we couldn't getting to or to finish in the second half to maybe cut it to a four or a five and just couldn't make a couple of plays there. But, boy, am I proud of my group.
We lost to Tennessee. We split with them this year. They're a team that was picked preseason picked to win our league, and they're playing awfully well right now. And I couldn't be prouder. These guys really hurt.
Especially my seniors. It was hard to be in that locker room. But they've taken us on a tremendous ride. And I think certainly one that should get us, in my opinion, into the NCAA Tournament.
CLAUDE FELTON: Questions for the student athletes.
Q. Do you agree with Coach? Obviously, you think you guys did enough? What do you think about the future?
RASHEEM BARRETT: Yeah, I believe, me, myself and the rest of my teammates agree with Coach. Like he said, for the last month and a half we worked as hard as we could work. I mean, people said we were down. Couldn't do anything, but we did a lot. And I think we deserve the bid.
Q. Talk a little about the second half. You cut it to five, and what was Tennessee doing to keep you guys from catching them?
RASHEEM BARRETT: Like Coach said, Chism in the five man shooting threes is hard. We're not used to doing that. They play a little bit more aggressive than we did throughout the game. They're just a great ball team. You can't take anything away from them. They played a great game. Great players, and they deserve to win.
Q. Did you guys come into this game feeling like it was a must win for your NCAA Tournament hopes?
KORVOTNEY BARBER: Yeah, yeah, we did. But really we wasn't thinking about the NCAA, we just came into it as another game. We knew it was going to be a dog fight. Tennessee just played more aggressive than we did, knocking down the shots and they came up with the win.
Q. If you don't get a NCAA bid, will it be hard to get excited about going to play in the NIT?
RASHEEM BARRETT: It won't be hard to be excited about being in the NIT. It's another ball game. We're all here to play basketball, what we love to do.
We feel we deserve a bid for the NCAA. But we're going to go in with our best foot forward. We're going to practice hard. I'm sure Coach is going to prepare us well, and we're going to do our best.
KORVOTNEY BARBER: He said it all. I mean, we haven't been to a postgame since I've been here, so I think we want to go to the NCAA's. But we're not seeded, then that's fine with us.
Q. Can you talk about your thoughts on being so close and in a position now that you've never really been in before since you've been at Auburn? And just being on the fringe of getting everything you probably signed up for when you came to play at Auburn?
RASHEEM BARRETT: It's a wonderful experience. I can't take anything away from the four years. To end it like this, having me and Quantez as seniors, we enjoyed our ride. To put us in position, like Coach said, at the end of your senior year, something you've never had before, postseason play, it's just wonderful. NIT, NCAA, we never experienced it, and we worked as hard as we could.
Q. At the end of the half, it looked like you hurt your arm? What happened there and did that affect you in the second half?
KORVOTNEY BARBER: I just tried to go for a rebound and my elbow kind of went in a little bit. But it was nothing major really.
CLAUDE FELTON: We'll excuse the student athletes. We'll continue with questions for Coach Lebo.
Q. It looked like in the second half in particular you guys had a good many open shots and threes, and even in closer. Was it frustrating that they just wouldn't go down?
COACH LEBO: Yeah, it was. I thought we had a couple of fast break opportunities, too. Where Frankie had a couple at the rim where we didn't convert on. Had a couple of open threes that we needed to make.
But we made some big ones also. Defensively they had us spread out, attacked us a little bit at the three position with Ty or Smith they Tyler Smith they went a little bit bigger and played a lot at the three and tried to pound it inside against us.
When they're making threes from the perimeter, you've got to get out there, and it opens up some things for them.
But we had some chances. We had some shots, we had some plays. We got a couple of stops when we needed to, but we just couldn't convert them when we needed to in a couple of crucial times there to maybe cut it to three or four.
Q. The people who actually look at the NCAA and who gets in and what have you, I think you were one of the third teams just on the outside looking in before today, and I know that you've also been pretty vocal about telling people that this is a team that deserves a look. Can you make one more pitch, I guess?
COACH LEBO: Well, I mean, the SEC, as much as it's been bashed, I'm not so sure we're even going to get the automatic qualifier, they may even take that from us this year. I mean, my lord.
We are down, but to say that we haven't disappeared. That's what gets frustrating. It's been since 1996. I think we've had five in. We've been the hottest team coming down the stretch. Not just hot for a week or hot for two weeks.
We've won 11 SEC games. We beat the top two teams in the league. They talk about the West being weaker than the east. I don't see that. You look at the numbers. When is the last time that a team has won 11 SEC games and not get in and they just bash the SEC this year. It's just, to me, it's just not fair.
We're a young league. We didn't have a lot early because of our youth. Our team in particular, we had some injuries. We didn't have Rasheem Barrett really healthy until January. You look at his numbers when he was healthy, and we had some losses without him being healthy. We're a different basketball team, obviously, with him in there.
I just feel really strongly that we deserve to be in. I think there's four teams that certainly deserve to get in. Mississippi State's one that obviously could get in tomorrow if we keep the automatic bid. I'm not sure if they're going to keep that or not for this league. We may have lost it. I'm not sure.
Q. Talking about a lot of the end of the season, what about in the beginning, you lost some games early out of conference. How much should that play a role, and obviously it does because people look at RPI's?
COACH LEBO: It does. What's odd to me is they always talk about your total body of work. Then we play a tournament and in three or four days they determine who goes. So it's kind of one thing or the other.
So we had some losses early. We didn't have I didn't think our full team there. But what we did coming down the stretch in the league, you can't take that away from these kids.
My opinion, you know, I've watched a lot of basketball. And this league, while we're not going to get 7, 4 or 5, is where we should be, I think.
Q. If it is an NIT bid tomorrow, do you think that's something the team can approach with enthusiasm?
COACH LEBO: I don't think it will be enthusiastic to start. I'm not going to lie. I don't think. I think it's going to be hurting, and they should be.
So we'll have to deal with that once we find out. But we'll just have to wait and see when it comes out tomorrow.
Q. Regardless of what happens tomorrow whether it's NIT or NCAA. Can you reflect on what happened this last month on or so?
COACH LEBO: These kids have been unbelievable. I thanked them for the ride. You've got to realize that every game that we played, they said has been a must win for about the last 11 games. We've had a lot of pressure, and with each win, the pressure and the magnitude of each game kind of snow balled. The kids have been unbelievable through all of that.
I think everybody was kind of waiting for us as we come down the stretch to lose that one to take us out of consideration, lose that one and take us out of consideration, and we didn't do it we kept winning and kept winning and showing great toughness.
It put us in a position that I think we're going we deserve to be in. But we've played our last ten, 11 games with everything to lose, all right. And it's been emotionally, I know, draining on the kids. How can it not be?
It's been emotionally draining on everybody, but it's been a heck of a ride. Boy, it's been fun. I'm awfully proud of those guys in there. They gave me everything that they could possibly give me.
We remembered one of the better basketball teams at Auburn. 22 wins, four years it's just phenomenal.
Q. Can you talk about the performance Korvotney had today? Have you ever seen him play this well?
COACH LEBO: He was great all year. I was just so disappointed. Not to take away anything from any of the guys that were first team. They all deserved it. But what he's meant to this basketball team, what he did this year, the only guy scoring in double figures, double rebounds, double in all the games in SEC play.
For him not to be on it bothered me a little bit, because to me, he's a first team all SEC guy. If I could vote for it, I couldn't vote for my own guys, but he would be in the top four. MVP, I think, of our team. He's had an unbelievable year. His toughness physically, his toughness mentally, his leadership. He's battling every night against bigger guys, and he comes out of just about every game with these kind of numbers, and I'm just awfully proud of him.
He's a kid that's really, really improved from the time he came to where he's left. Paragraph I told him I'm not saying goodbye to him yet. We're not having that speech yet. We still have some basketball yet to be played.
Q. Having played Mississippi State and Tennessee twice, just your thoughts about that match up tomorrow?
COACH LEBO: Well, it's going to be a battle. I think that Tennessee's probably going to try to go inside. Mississippi State's going to use their four guard lineup to try to spread them to see if they can make shots. It will be a heck of a basketball game.
They didn't play too long ago. I believe it was in Knoxville with Mississippi State played them very well. So it's going to be a heck of a match up, I think, tomorrow.