Oct. 14, 2009
"If you were to record each and every media day, you'd probably have a party looking back at them--with the exception of the fact that I'm a little fatter, a little grayer and my face is worn and I'm looking a little older--I probably say the exact same thing every year. And that is, that this is my favorite time of year. Not just because the weather's changing and the leaves are coming, but because we're going to start practice--and start practice in a big, big way.
"Up until this point when we start on Friday, we've been going since the kids got back in school. That means we've been at it since September. And in that time we've been able to do a great deal of conditioning, a lot of weight training... a lot of player-development stuff and injury-prevention things. And (we recently) began to have some team individual workouts where I've been able to do some five-on-five teaching.
"That process really has us ready to start practice. Two weeks from the start of practice, we have our first exhibition game. So ready or not, here it comes. And it gets here in a hurry.
"We're trying to focus on several areas. One, we're always working on trying to improve defensively. We're going to try to extend the defense a little bit more this year and press a little bit more and play the game to the tempo we like to play. We didn't feel like we had the experience or the quickness at guard to dictate tempo last year. And we felt that not always were we best playing fast. Sometimes we were better playing slower. That's why we didn't press as much.
"But I think in the big scheme of things, we're going to take advantage of our depth, which we once again have. (And to have) the ability to beat everybody on our schedule that we're `supposed' to beat, and have a chance to beat some of the teams maybe we're `not supposed' to beat, we've got to get back in that form of play. We just lost a little bit of our aggression (last season).
"This would be a great example... you use pressure defense to create 50-50 balls. You use pressure defense to create situations where the ball has as much of a chance to be ours as it does our opponents'. Well, JaJuan Smith or Ramar Smith or Chris Lofton, Jordan Howell... those guys got a lot of those 50-50 balls. Last year with three of four new guards, we didn't. That's why we gave up on (playing as much pressure defense). We'll without question try to bring that back. I think our team understands that.
"Some other differences... last year we really spent a great deal of time competing for positions. Bobby (Maze) was competing against Josh Tabb. Cameron (Tatum) was competing against Scotty Hopson. J.P. (Prince) was trying to establish himself at his position. Tyler was going back and forth between the three and four. And I just think it took us too long to come together as a team. We didn't actually start playing our best basketball last year until late in February. And I think this year... this group has been together off the court for an entire season. We're closer. We get along better. We understand each other better. We tolerate each other's differences. We forgive each other for our failings. And we also felt like although last year was another championship season for Tennessee basketball, we had the ability to go a little farther than we did and accomplish a little bit more than we did. That feeling sort of carried us through into what this off-season was all about.
"I get a lot of questions now asking `Coach, is this the year?' What I would say is, it's been `the year' for the last four years. We have competed for the SEC Championship every year I've been here. And we'll compete for the SEC Championship again this year. So really, there's nothing much different about this year than any other year. We're in it. We are in it to win it. We're in it to defend one championship (SEC Eastern Division), and we're in it to win a couple of others. And we're in it to make the NCAA Tournament and see if we can go farther. If you wind the tape back, I think you will hear me say the exact same thing almost every other year.
"But somehow expectations do change. And the thought is that we've got a lot of seniors, we've got this and we've got that and maybe this is the year we can go farther. Well guess what, so was last year and so was the year before.
"So I don't want to lose sight of the fact that we've got some stuff to defend. I do want to acknowledge the fact that we feel like we have a club--just like we have in the past--that thinks it can go one more step or maybe a couple more steps. But you've got to play it up and see the chemistry and see how healthy the ball club is.
"But the program is in phenomenal shape. Once again we've set records for season-ticket sales. We've sold well over 15,000 season tickets. We've got several individual games that are already sold out. Kentucky, Kansas... you'll probably get some information on that later about some other games that may have sold out today, because today was the first day we sold individual single-game tickets. So the fans have responded in a huge, huge way. The guys have done a great job in the off-season. The schedule is set to once again keep Tennessee basketball in the forefront of college basketball. We have one of the top two or three television packages of any program in the country. It's because of this facility (Thompson-Boling Arena) and the way our fans respond. It's because we are a team that can go on the road. If you'll notice, if you look at our television schedule, Tennessee is on the road a lot. And the reason is because we've got a veteran club. We've demonstrated that we can not only win on the road in league play, but even when we don't win, we've been in almost all the games we play with the exception of just maybe a handful over the last four years. Things are in great shape.
"We're finishing up recruiting right now as we head into this really, really busy late-October, early-November period. And we feel like we're positioned well. Some things have got to come together for us here down the stretch in order for us to have the kind of year we need to have in recruiting. Because when you talk about replacing Bobby Maze, J.P. Prince, Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism--those will be four great players who will play a lot of basketball this year. So therefore there's a tremendous opportunity there (for new players to step in), and that's what we've been out there selling. I think we've done well so far. We're in position to do really well, but we'll have to see how it all plays out."
On the point guard position: "I think (Bobby Maze) is going to do really well this year. I think we're going to get stepped-up play at the point guard from Bobby because of all that he's had an opportunity to do in (a full) off-season. I'll take one hit in the sense that I didn't trust my point guards enough to allow them to win or lose games. I didn't put the ball in their hands very often in late-game situations, and I need to do that more. From what I've seen of Bobby in the off-season, I have confidence to do that more often. Not all the time--but more often.
"It's unfortunate that we don't have Melvin Goins for the start of practice (knee). Because Skylar McBee, Melvin Goins and Kenny Hall are three new players who can all contribute to this year's team. And if there's anybody who needs these repetitions and needs the teaching and needs to be here at the start of practice, it's the newcomers. So it gives Bobby the advantage in the competition for the position, but Melvin will still challenge. Melvin is a `pass first' point guard. He is a terrific playmaker. He can get in the lane and score over bigger people and he can also make plays for others in the lane. He's probably a little bit more creative for others in the half court than Bobby is. Bobby is a better shooter right now. On the ball defensively, Melvin can keep guys in front of him.
"And if you look at the rosters of team that we face--both in the league and in non-conference--once again it's like watching the NBA Draft and seeing all the guys you've got to go up against. We've got to go up against a ton of guys this year in our league who are playing in the NBA. And several of them are going to be playing the point guard position. Several of them reside in the SEC East. And so it's really important that Bobby improves defensively and that Melvin is able to play and be that sort of defensive stopper."
On his coaching staff: "I'm very, very blessed to have as good a coaching staff as there is in the country. I feel very, very good about the men we're working with. They've been with these (players) for a long time."
On any differences in how he prepares a veteran team for the season: "Young people want discipline still. I know for a fifth-year senior, running `The Hill' (the Gate 10 ramp at Neyland Stadium) isn't as exciting. But when I say `Bring `em in here' for the first time, that freshman can't get in that huddle fast enough. Whereas that fifth- or sixth-year guy, I've been `Bringing `em in here' for four or five years and it's old. But we decided, through some discussions with our seniors, that we didn't want to do anything too terribly different. I wasn't going to treat them like a bunch of cagy veterans, give them a little bit more time off and give them a little more slack. The regimen has been: If it's not broke, don't fix it. The regimen is what it is. And the way we combine our strength training, our agilities, our running `The Hill,' the things we do at the football stadium, how many times a week we play... if it's not broke don't fix it. So this is what we do in the preseason, and this is what we'll continue to do. Now, we'll make adjustments in how we play based on personnel and how we do. But as for how we train and our training rules, no, (there has been no difference in how we've handled this veteran team.)"
On Emmanuel Negedu: "His situation continues to be a tremendous story--and it's an ongoing story--because of what Emmanuel has gone through, what we as a team have gone through, the job that our training staff did in saving his life, UT Medical Center donating those extra defibrillators so we could have them in lots of different places in our facilities... that ended up being a factor in saving his life.
"The thing that I've shared, that I'll share with you all again, has to do with Emmanuel's reaction to everything. First of all, his reaction to having that episode where his heart stopped... once he gained consciousness and figured out what had happened to him and that he was in the hospital, all he could worry about was staying alive so he can take care of his family. That is all he was worried about. His family. He believed that it was not his time, and he was asking God to please save him so that he could take care of his family. Amazing.
"And then once he was told that there as a very strong possibility that he might never play competitively again--and certainly wasn't going to play this year and that his career competing as a highly competitive athlete could be over--once again he went right to his family. Only this time it was the Tennessee basketball family. It was about what Brian (Williams) can do and what Wayne (Chism) can do for this team? And what could (Emmanuel) do to get Kenny (Hall) ready? Being around young people sometimes, it never ceases to amaze me. His character came through. Adversity doesn't build character; adversity reveals character. Emmanuel's character has been tremendously revealed through this entire process. And I am so very, very proud to have him on our team and have him be a part of this program."