March 5, 2012
"I first want to congratulate Coach Summitt and the Lady Vols for winning a championship. It was fun to watch them play. They played hard.
"Our guys did a good job closing out the regular season. They played some good basketball, winning eight out of the last nine games - that's impressive in any league. To do it at the level our guys did it at, to get back in games when we were down, making shots, making plays, guys who hadn't played a lot stepped up - it's a credit to our guys for really staying focused and finding ways to win games. Also, the guys did a great job from start to finish of the season of getting better. And as a coach that's what you always want to see, your guys continuing to make progress every day, individually as well as a team. On both ends of the floor, we did that.
"One of the biggest areas of improvement was our free-throw shooting. Guys stepped up, especially late, to make big free throws down the stretch of the season. Trae (Golden) was obviously the best in the league at that. And it's tough to get beat when you can make them down the stretch and win games with that and the way we defended. The last game, we did a good job of not turning the ball over - so that was great as well.
"We did some pretty good things in the league from a defensive standpoint with numbers and percentages, from where we started to where we finished in regular season play. But it's just a credit to the guys' hard work, their commitment to defending at a high level, and more importantly playing for each other. That was great."
On when the team began making progress
"I saw it in some of the early losses, the four-game home stretch we had during the preseason before we went to Memphis. I saw the guys making progress, but maybe it was one or two guys and then another guy would step up in another game. One guy made progress defensively; the other guys might not have played as well. One guy made a pretty good move off the dribble - we'd been working three weeks on that and he finally showed it in a game. And then once the Florida game (happened), we got better as a team. From that point, guys individually got better and we got better as a team defending, trusting each other and believing in each other more than anything. There are still a lot of breakdowns in games, but when we make mistakes guys cover them up quickly on the next rotations defensively. Or when a guy breaks down off the dribble and makes a play, somebody is moving on the backside - whereas at the beginning of the season, we wouldn't rotate offensively to get the next play. Guys are doing that now."
"I said that when I really saw Trae in practice, with his ability he has a chance to be one of the best if not the best point guards in this league - with his ability and his skill package. Now there's a lot of work he has to consistently do. As well as he's played right now, he's only a sophomore. As a starter in his first season, he played really well. He got better late. When he's getting to the free-throw line, he's tough to guard because now his whole game opens up. He's getting to the rim, he's knocking down the 3-point shot, he's penetrating and pitching. And then when he's not turning the ball over, he's really tough to guard at that point. He's really learning how to run a team more than anything. He's a guy who was able to take care of himself as far as his ability to score for so many years. Now he has to find a way to facilitate and run a team and be the leader out there on the floor."
On the rest of the backcourt
"The biggest key with the other guys - Jordan McRae is scoring. We need him to stay aggressive and looking to score, making strong moves to the rim. Also getting to the free-throw line more because he's a better free-throw shooter. He's missed a couple here and there but he's a really good free-throw shooter. We need him to get to the line. He's a guy who's built to score, so you need him aggressive. Skylar (McBee) is making shots - we need him to look for his shot a little bit more and be aggressive.
"But more than anything for our guards is to be able to take care of the basketball, to be able to facilitate on the perimeter, whether they are dribble-penetrating - we need Josh (Richardson) to dribble-penetrate more because he has that ability. Cam (Tatum) is playing really well. Cam is doing a lot of things - shooting the ball, getting to the rim, rebounding the basketball, defending. He's doing a lot of things for us."
On the team's expectations after being picked 11th in preseason
"I don't know what I really saw, to be honest with you because you have a new team. It's not like I had coached this team for three years and I could come in and say, `OK, this is what we're doing guys,' and you picked us to finish 11th and I knew the personnel, I knew the league and I knew who we were going up against. I was trying to gauge the talent and the coaches as well. So now you're talking about a new team, a new style, a new system - it's not an easy thing. You kind of learn on the fly, so to speak, understanding your personnel, where your strengths and weaknesses are.
"I always thought we could be a good defensive team. I didn't think we would be as bad as we were out of the gates. I thought we could be good defensively early, just because we could be solid. I didn't want to walk the ball up the court and hold the ball until we got good defensively. I wanted to try to score, to not only be entertaining but to give the guys confidence. That way, when the defense did catch up, we would be ready. I thought we'd be a little bit better defensively early in the season than what we were."
On how much Stokes has improved his game
"As good as he is, he hasn't had the chance to really go through the grind of practice and the system. Right now, what he's doing is just everyday practice; that's what he's learning. Whatever we do in practice that day, we don't have the time to go back and say, `We did this four months ago; let's work on this.' He had his best game defensively against Vanderbilt. He did a tremendous job - we watched the film - of playing post defense, challenging the shooters. When our guards were late, he did a good job of getting his hands up on the shooter. He did a really good job with his whole floor game.
"He's a double-double guy, even on a bad night. But right now, I don't think he's the player he's going to be, and that's just really him getting a feel for the system more than anything. Everything is still fast-paced and moving. Once is really kind of slows down and he gets a gauge of everything, he'll be a special player."
On how Stokes has changed the team
"We were playing pretty good ball - he didn't play in the Florida game - but it's just another piece. Kentucky is good because they have multiple pieces that can play. When you're trying to be one of the best teams in America - North Carolina has multiple guys who can make plays. So he's really helped from that standpoint because you have to identify him on the floor. When our guards penetrate in the lane, it's hard to leave Jeronne and Jarnell because they can make plays and you have to box them out. You have to double-team him, so now Jeronne's open.
"He opens up so many doors for you, as well as Jeronne, so it's hard to say, `Let's hone in on this guy; we can beat them.' There are too many options now."
On how Kentucky's undefeated SEC season reflects on the league as a whole
"They're a good team. We had an opportunity to beat them here, but they're a good team. They play well together, they do a good job of executing on both ends of the floor, they have a great shot-blocker. But this is a good league. I guess you could ask that same question with Syracuse going (17-1) in the Big East. When you're good, you're good, and you have to give credit where it's due."
On how Coach Martin's perception of the league changed after one season
"From the outside, I always thought it was a league that just scored a lot. I don't think it gets the credit for defending the way it does. You've got a lot of teams that can defend in this league. You've got a lot of coaches who can coach in this league - guys who understand and actually do a scouting report and execute it and you have to play. I was asked the question, `How does this league compare with the Big 10 when I was playing or even as a coach?' They are very similar from the standpoint of you have to be ready, you have to game plan, you have to scheme. Not gimmicks, but you have to understand what's going on because these teams actually do their homework and they take away your strengths and you have to find a way to make plays."
On the decision to stick with Golden at point guard
"From the standpoint of experience, you had other guys there but he had to be that guy. He can be that and I was not about to let him off the hook and just let him play some 2 guard and shoot some balls and not do the things he needed to do in order for our team to be successful. His future is at point guard in this program and he's going to be a really good one because he understands and he's playing with a level of confidence right now. He's only going to get better. His best position for us is at point guard."
On Golden's best position in the pros also being point guard because of his height
"Oh, without a doubt, and not necessarily the height but just his game. He has to be a point guard. You're talking about him being a pro, especially at the NBA level, where 2 guards are 6-5, 6-6, 6-8, 6-9 and you're trying to defend them - it's not an easy thing to do. But for him, being point guard, which he can be, he can make plays, he can dribble the ball, he can get to the rim, he can shoot the ball, he can do a lot of things. And he's just getting better and better every day."
On certain signs or coaching determination leading to the team's defensive improvement
"A little bit of both. It had to be, in order for us to be successful. But just seeing the bodies, like Jeronne Maymon's body, Jordan McRae's length, Skylar McBee's toughness, Cam's length - you can be a good defensive team. With defense, it's putting the time into it but it's also having some pride and some love for playing defense more than anything. Because you don't have to be the quickest guy to be a good defender, it's just having something in you and taking pride in what you do."
On if this season is one of the more fun years
"The thing that's fun for me is when you see guys get better every day, when the guys look forward to practice. When you go to practice and your guys don't look forward to it, there's no excitement in practice; it's going to be tough. We generate energy in our practices. I can't be in a practice if there's no energy, no life, guys aren't getting better. Why do you do this if your players aren't getting better? Just to see our guys make progress every day. But also as a coach when you see other guys not making that level of progress you'd like for them to make, you continue to drive and push to get it out of those guys. That's the fun part about doing what we do -- just making sure guys get better. Jeronne Maymon making big free throws late and having the confidence to do that. Trae Golden has 17 or 18 free throws in a row. Trae Golden making plays off the dribble. Cam Tatum not giving up. Jordan McRae is becoming a scorer. All of the sudden he has a chance to be one of the better scorers in the league if he continues to keep doing what he's doing. As a coach that's what drives you more than anything."
On the tournament environment
"You have to take one game at a time and play every game like it's your last game. That's very important. I don't think you're saving anything or holding anything back. Every game is one game at a time. As you go into a tournament environment, that's my focus. There's no tomorrow. You try to win every game you play; you don't hold anything back. You make it to the next day; you prepare to win that game the best way possible."
On preparing with a bye
"I've been on both sides. It just depends on how you look at it. I think with a bye, you don't know the opponent so from a scouting standpoint you can't give your players any exacts. I think in this particular case with Auburn and Ole Miss being similar teams -- physical, grind you out, rebound, tough, hard-nosed -- so they're similar in their approach. It's not like one team is the tough team and the other team runs the Princeton offense. Both teams are similar so it helps you. It's hard to go into practice and give specifics on the scouting report and say they run these plays because you don't know. For us, we've talked about it from Day 1. We rely on our principles defensively so if they do run a new play, our principles should get us out of that jam."
On overcoming the freshman wall with Stokes
"You know, I don't think he hit a wall. More than anything the conditioning kicked in. Initially, he was running on adrenaline, the emotion, the atmosphere, the crowd getting him through certain situations. But then the scouting reports got to him, the double teams in games, throwing different things at him, he has to defend at a high level, he has to run down the floor, he has to help. All those things are mentally taxing more than the physical part of it. Once he had a couple of games under his belt as he comes back around, he's done a good job. Like I said, last game was his best game all year. He did a really good job in the second half against Ole Miss and he did a really good job in the Vanderbilt game of defending, rebounding, boxing out and playing hard. It was a case of him getting the feel for everything."
On the physical and mental toughness of the team down the stretch
"Early it was always Jeronne or Cam who would say a few words to set the tone. Now it's more of a team. Jordan McRae has always been a guy that loves to score. He's telling guys that was a quick shot, you shot too quickly or `let's get a stop right here.' He's taken pride in that area. He has a great IQ for the game and you need him to be more vocal because he has a good understanding. It's more of a team now than anything. Even guys on the bench will say a few things because they understand the culture; they understand how we play. A guy can shoot a shot in the game that might be quick and the guys on the bench will say it's a quick shot. I don't even have to say anything. This is what we do; this is how we do it and the level we do it at. When you get to that point as a program when your locker room is saying the same thing as your coaching staff, you have a chance to be pretty good."
On the media requests following the win against Vanderbilt
"I like talking to you guys. It's not a problem at all. It's part of the job and you do what you have to do. It's not a big deal at all."
On a hypothetical list of criteria for the tournament
"You have 10 wins in the SEC. When you say it from an NCAA standpoint as a body of work, we got out of the gates slow, but eight of the last nine - how many teams in the country, especially in at-large leagues, BCS leagues, eight of the last nine, how many are saying that? That's impressive the way our guys have played. When you talk about getting better as a team late, we've gotten better as a team. Also, you have the addition of Jarnell Stokes. Earlier you would be a different team with Jarnell Stokes because he's been in your practice and rotation. Obviously, we're a better team, no question. The guys on the team before Stokes have gotten better. I like our chances. You talk about 10 wins -- 10-6 -- that's impressive."
On how many wins it will take to make the NCAA tournament
"We try to win every game we play. Every time Tennessee steps on the floor, we're trying to win a ballgame."
On if top 25 wins speak for the resume of the team
"I like to think so. As tough as it is to win on the road, I don't care what league it's in, to win a road game isn't an easy thing to do. It's a mental toughness. That's why a lot of teams don't do it. To beat top 25 teams and then win one on the road, it's impressive. Once again, we didn't do it early in the season. Down the stretch, we did it late."
On changing the Wednesday-Saturday routine
"My whole thing is everyone has to do it. For us, we took off yesterday and we'll take off today. So you have two days off to get healed, healthy and ready to go."
On being on the bubble last year
"Was it painful for me as a coach? It was for the players and me feeling for the players. You go 15-3 in the league and you win seven in a row, so it's tough from that standpoint. It's part of the profession and part of the business. Like I tell the guys, if that's the worst thing to ever happen in your life, you're going to live a great life. It's easy to say, `Win every game.' Well that's not realistic, but it was a good experience for those guys and they're better men for it."
On the irony of trying to knock off mid-majors now after last year
"We laughed about that as a staff. It's amazing because the Missouri Valley got two teams in this year. Wow (laughs). It's part of it. You try to control the environment the best way possible. I like the situation here much better because of the fact of where we've come from and where we are. I like to think we're a tournament team now, but as a coach I'm happy to see our guys getting better and to see them having fun playing basketball and with a smile on their faces. They walk into practice with a level of toughness and swagger to them. That's what makes me happy - to see these guys represent the way they represent and fight for each other."
On preseason training keeping them from wilting now
"Part of the stuff we do in preseason workouts -- there are no magic tricks. We're not jumping out of airplanes or anything like that. It's just mental toughness all the time, fighting through situations, competing through certain drills in practice. I think it helps you think sometime because you're so mentally tough. You know, we get down 15 in a game or 10 points, I just say let's work them back down. We don't need to fuss about it or make a big deal about it, throw trash in the locker room. Hey, let's get back in the game. These are the things we need to correct and let's get moving. The guys understand that. They keep a level of confidence and they keep a level head. This is what we have to do to get back in this game. We've been here before; we've seen every scenario, so let's do what we need to do to get this win."
On historically underperforming in the SEC tournament
"I do my homework from a history standpoint. I'm the coach in 2012. For us, we're doing everything in our power to win ballgames. If it's history and negative, I don't pay attention to it or talk to the guys about it. We're just doing everything in our power to win a ballgame."
On Kenny Hall
"He will not be playing in the tournament.