KNOXVILLE (UTSports.com) -- Below is a transcript of Tennessee basketball head coach Bruce Pearl’s Preseason Media Day comments from Wednesday, Oct. 13.
“As you guys know, it’s my favorite time of the year. The opportunity to put a team together, combining all the different pieces that you anticipate having, both from recruiting to the offseason workouts and the development of the players individually and the challenge of putting them all together and seeing if you can become a competitive, championship basketball team.
“I think we’ve had a good offseason from a standpoint of our training. This has been a group that together has worked harder than any I’ve ever had because it’s been top to bottom. Occasionally, you’ll have a couple of guys that will really stand out—and we do—but they then sort of separate themselves from the rest and don’t bring anybody with them or don’t bring enough guys with them. I think to this point, that’s different. So that’s a very positive thing.
“As far as the roster’s concerned, this is the first year I really think since we got here that we have 13 guys on scholarship, maybe it’s happened before. And really 14 guys that have an opportunity to be in the regular rotation. Legitimately. From that standpoint, it is our deepest team. Decisions are probably going to have to be made sooner. Even though we’ve got a lot of new pieces because the schedule’s challenging early. There is a lot of uncertainty as far as what guys are going to start and what guys are going to play what role, so on and so forth, because the competition has been good and the cream is going to have to rise to the top, sooner rather than later.
“And the big transition I think from the preseason workouts from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, and now Oct. 15 moving forward is rather than the players showing me what they can do, which has been the focus, they now need to show me how they can make their teammates better on the offensive and the defensive end. Therefore, more unselfish play. Therefore, more understanding of what we need to do. And just the amazing part of the way the thing is set up, we play in two weeks and yet practice starts Friday.
“Schedule is terrific once again. You don’t have a crystal ball when you put the schedule together, but you could pretty much anticipate many of our non-conference teams are perennially nationally competitive programs. This year, that is the case once again. I think the league, especially in the East is going to be the most competitive that we’ve seen in the last five or six years.”
Have any of the players stepped up as early leaders, not necessarily on the court?
“I think Melvin Goins has stepped up as a leader. I think both on and off the court, with his play, with the way he communicates to the team. I see leadership from Steven Pearl, been here 16 years now.
“But I think Melvin has really been the guy that looks to me like—as far as leadership role—has changed from last year to this year. Remember at this time (last year), he was recovering from some knee surgery, so he really didn’t get a chance to compete with Bobby Maze for the point guard position. Bobby really had it, and then Melvin was trying to complement Bobby, and really never got a chance to beat him. It’s not that he necessarily would have. So Melvin comes in healthy and having been here.
“You know, Melvin wasn’t here last summer. He was here this summer. And I do think that this is going to help Melvin’s game because leadership was a part of Melvin that comes naturally that he wasn’t able to use last year by virtue of the fact that he didn’t get here until the fall, or until August. I think leading will help Melvin play better, too.”
Is that something you challenged him with so many leaders leaving last year?
“I believe that leaders are born, and you can cultivate them, but I don’t think you can force them. But I don’t think you can force leadership. Just because you’re a point guard or a senior doesn’t make him the leader. It’s got to come naturally. Then you can, once it comes naturally, teach him how to lead properly. So I didn’t sit down at all with any of the seniors and, ‘OK, it’s your turn. This is your team.’ No. But once I see who is naturally stepping forward—and a lot of time it is your point guard, a lot of times it is your seniors—then you begin to help them lead.”
With the departure of Wayne Chism, you have a lot of options now in your spot. Is that going to be one of the more interesting things to see how that plays out?
“I think the most interesting thing is going to be the face of Tennessee basketball is going to look different. Wayne Chism’s not out there. It’s not been since my first season that Wayne Chism wasn’t out there. J.P. Prince is not out there. He played for us for three years. Tyler Smith and Bobby Maze. The face of our team is going to look a lot different. So it’s going to present a lot of opportunities. We’ll play differently.
We’ll look differently. The system will be the same. So from that standpoint, I think it will be really exciting. I think our fans are going to be interested in how those early exhibition games go. Or if there are scrimmages. Practices that are open, if there are Orange and White scrimmages, I think they’ll be interested in getting in Thompson-Boling Arena to see what it looks like.”
When, theoretically, would you like to settle on a rotation? Or are you kind of flexible with that?
“That’s a great question. But I don’t know that I can say I ever settle on a rotation when Josh Bone, who hadn’t played for eight games, all of a sudden gets the nod against Ohio and plays against Ohio State and Michigan State. I’m not a guy that does a lot of changing too much of the starting lineups, but I think that this is a team that can have some change in rotations because there are 14 players. But I think the point I’m making now about Oct. 15 from Sept. 15 is we begin to get into that stage of—as it relates to the rotations—do you make us better because you’re out there offensively or defensively? As opposed to prior to this, let me see what you can do offensively or defensively. I need to see whether you can shoot it. I need to see whether you can post it. I need to see how you handle the ball on the perimeter or pass it. I need to see whether you can guard the perimeter. OK, I’ve seen some of that now. Now, what kind of a team can we be? So there’s really no deadline. It’ll probably evolve longer on this team than most I’ve had.”
He’s not a senior, but Scotty Hopson has probably played more basketball than anybody you’ve got. In the past, you’ve always been quick to point out that he doesn’t have to do everything himself. But do you go the other way this year and purposely put more on his shoulders?
“I think Scotty can make plays, and Scotty can score. And that’s absolutely not something that’s disputable. It would be the other areas of the game where I think he needs to place his focus and become dominant—as a great rebounding guard, as a great defensive guard. He can contain his man very, very well. Has since he got here. But can he make plays off the ball? Can he use his length and block shots and get more deflections and steals? And stuff a stat sheet with more than just scoring and therefore make his teammates better?
“I think ultimately for us to be a great team, the cream needs to rise to the top. Guys like Scotty Hopson absolutely need to do more. He’d be an example of just one of several guys, I think, that would need to do that in order for us to be a great team.”
Have you seen a difference in him after the kind of summer he had?
“Scotty had a great summer from the standpoint of where he traveled and who he played against and the learning curve. We’re just getting started now in practice, so I’ll be able to answer the question about whether or not I see somebody that’s more consistently dominant in the next week or two.”
Behind Melvin, do you have a pecking order yet?
“I think the guys that are competing for the position are Trae Golden, Skylar McBee. Josh Bone can play there, and Mike Hubert. A year ago at this time, Mike Hubert was our backup point guard heading into our exhibition season and played well. He actually just had some arthroscopic surgery last week to clean up some stuff from a pretty major surgery a year ago. We’ve got more depth at the point guard position, and I think it’s going to be a good, healthy competition.
“The interesting thing about Skylar McBee playing the position is that he’s always been an off-the-ball guy, always been known as a shooter and a scorer, but he handled the ball some up in (high school) in Grainger County. But it would be a big transition for him. He’s capable of it, and I think it’s got a chance to be a position for him. I think he’s going to be a combo guard as long as he’s here. I wouldn’t think he’s going to be a designated two. I think he’s going probably play both because he handles it well.
“Trae Golden was a high school scorer. That’s what he was. I would say that I’ve been with his transition because he’s only played the point for us. That’s the only position he’s been working at. He’s really good in ball-screen offense. He can shoot it. He can pass it. His biggest challenge is keeping the kind of guys that we have to go against night in and night out in front of him, where Skylar does a really good job defensively keeping the quick guys in front of him.
“Josh Bone’s more comfortable off the ball, might be as good of a catch-and-stick shooter as we have. And a really strong defender. But Josh Bone is probably more comfortable off the ball than he is on. I think it’s Melvin, Trae and Skylar. Those will be the guys, and two of them will play.”
You said during the offseason workouts they were maybe more intense, physical sessions because the players had gotten tired in some games last year. How much have you seen their endurance grow or change?
“Well, part of it is mental toughness and part of it is physical toughness. Again, I don’t know yet, because we’re just getting started. But I think when you have 38 percent of your roster on scholarship coming in brand new, you have a real opportunity to set the tone. ‘OK, this is Tennessee basketball.’ They don’t know what it is. They’ve never experienced it. They know what it is now. And now they’ll be in a position to be able to introduce Tennessee basketball to the guys that come in in the future.
“So I ramped it up for a reason, and that was one of them. I think the second thing is because I had so much competition at this point, I had so much leverage. You didn’t want to train hard? Somebody else would train harder. So that was an opportunity that I think I took advantage of.
“And like you said, the third thing is that we did reference the fact that maybe in game three of the SEC Tournament a couple times over the last few years, just the mental toughness that we can point to. I want to be able to point to our success, but I also want to be able to point to our failures and build on it.”
Have you ever had a player who changed as much physically as Brian Williams?
“Not quite as much as Brian has. Of course, he came in here pretty sloppy at 385 (pounds). So he had a lot of room to go. But Brian’s conditioning has improved. Brian’s speed.
“We are very blessed between Troy Wills, who is our strength and conditioning coach, and Chad Newman, who is our trainer, we’ve got two of the very, very best in the business. They’ve done an amazing job. One of the questions I ask the guys, is I ask them to grade different people in my department. I don’t ask them to grade me—wouldn’t want to know what their thoughts might be there. And those guys grade out so high. One of the questions I ask is, ‘What do you like most about being at Tennessee?’ And one of the answers I get back very frequently is just all the people that are here to help them, like Troy or like Chad or like our nutritionist. So Brian’s taken full advantage of that.
“I could also point to Steven Pearl and say when he came in out of West High School, he wasn’t nearly what he is now. He’s the strongest guy on the team. When I first got here, I was the strongest guy on the team. Five years later, that’s not the case.”
Are you worried with the tough schedule that instead of the cream rising to the top, it could be the opposite, that this team could get down on itself early?
“Absolutely. Absolutely. I thought a couple of years ago when we played in that Old Spice Classic, then we had Gonzaga and LSU and Memphis come in early, Kentucky came in early, we never did quite get it going in the sense that we didn’t get that swag. We didn’t get that confidence. So yes, it’s hard to get it rolling. And then, winning cures everything.
“I got a lot of new guys that are going to be playing in this system for the first time. And I know they’ve seen it work, but they need to feel it work. They need to live it when it’s working. They need to buy in. Every year the kids need to buy in. Winning is the best way of doing it when you play this schedule. It is challenging. We’ll deal with that when we come to it. But I would much rather have to deal with a tougher schedule, sending a message to our players and our fans and the NCAA committee that this is where we see our basketball program and then have an opportunity to do it. You can’t beat them if they’re not on the schedule.”
Tobias Harris. Can you talk about him, how mature he is as a freshman? Is it too early to say that he’s penciled in for a starting spot?
“I think the thing about Tobias is that he will, for people that haven’t seen him, again, it’s all about expectations. Tobias is a very mature basketball player. He’s got a very high basketball IQ. He makes other guys better out there on the floor. Now he’ll do some things that make you go ‘ooh’ and ‘ah,’ but that’s not the kind of player he is. He’s a fundamentally sound, strong mind and body freshman. He’s a mature kid. He’s got a mature game. He’s got an old-school game. Obviously the position that he comes into was our greatest need. Losing Tyler, J.P. and Wayne at basically that point-forward position, he’s going to be asked to do a little bit of all that stuff, and he’s absolutely in position to be able to start. He is in position to win the starting position, no question, and be one of our better players.”
Are there some younger guys that are stepping into leadership roles?
“I think, for example, Cameron Tatum will, in my mind going in, have as big a change in his role as anybody. Cameron’s been in the program a long time, and he’s finally healthy. I think you’ll see a difference. He has an opportunity because J.P. Prince was at his position, and now (Cameron’s) got an opportunity to really do something there. While I didn’t include Cameron in my leadership, he’s been a great teammate. And Cameron’s always been a good leader. He is one of our leaders, for sure, but his role could change.
“I don’t know that any of the younger guys or the new guys are going to lead a lot yet. John Fields will lead by example because he’s so coachable. Jeronne Maymon will lead because he’s so tough and brings a bit of an edge. You come watch practice, and Jeronne will take your head off if you don’t fight him back. That’s a way of leading.
“The freshmen can play. The freshmen are all good. They can all play, and that’s exciting. So where they play and how they play and how they fit in, I don’t know. But it’s a good group.”
Having Melvin, a true point guard, that’s not something you’ve been used to. C.J. (Watson), is that the only time?
“C.J. was obviously the best of the bunch. I think, Melvin, probably from the standpoint of being that pure point guard, probably in stature and defensively, but offensively, Melvin does tend to over-dribble a little bit. And when the point guard’s dribbling the ball, the other guys are standing around watching. So you want Melvin to create. You want him to get in there and make ‘tough twos.’ You want him to get in the lane because he can make some things happen.
“But at the same time, you want him to get the ball up the floor, get it in Scotty’s hands, get it in Cameron’s hands, let Tobias bring the ball up the floor as a point-forward. So Melvin, one of the things we’re working on, is for him to give it up a little bit more. But as far as a guy that can defend and a guy that can lead, he is more in that pure point guard role.”
At times you faced a size challenge when Brian Williams was out for that stretch last year, and this year you could be completely opposite. Is that going to change your style to take advantage of that?
“You’re going to have to take advantage of our size. We’ve got good traditional size. We’ve got big guards, big wings. Our front line pretty much can look like everybody else’s, for the most part. And so the closer we get to the basket, the better we could look. The farther we get away from the basket, the more challenged we will be. Therefore, how much full-court pressure will we use is something that will be debatable. We’re not going to change our ability to run and still be good in the fast break and the secondary. We’ll still turn people over, but we may be able to turn them over at 94 feet as much as we turn them over in the halfcourt.
“I think we’ll be a better shot-blocking team. I think we’ll be a better rebounding team, although last year our rebounding numbers in our halfcourt defense were very, very good because I think toward the end of the season when Brian came back to us, we did become a little bit more traditional.
“So it will still be an up-tempo team, but it may not extend the floor as much defensively. Again.”
Do you think you’re going to be able to dictate tempo?
“No. Quicker teams, smaller teams, full-court pressing teams can dictate tempo. They can speed it up or they can slow it down. If you can’t use full-court pressure, you can’t dictate tempo. Because you can go faster with a big team, but you can’t make the other team go faster with a big team. We will not be able to dictate tempo. First few years, we had to dictate tempo. It was the only chance we had.”
Can you talk about the development of Skylar McBee?
“Skylar’s a terrific student-athlete. He’s what it’s all about. It’s just wonderful that we can take an East Tennessee guy and have him be a factor on our team and have him be a factor on our season. It’s special.
“Skylar had to go from a year ago where he was bound and determined that he belonged. That everybody was rooting for him to belong, but there were lots of people that questioned whether he belonged. He couldn’t lose. Show you don’t belong, you proved most people right. No pressure there. It’s a win-win situation. OK, so now he belongs. Now he’s on scholarship. Now he’s supposed to take and make that last shot against Kansas. A little different now. A little different.
“So my advice to Skylar is to set his goals a little bit higher at some point during his career. OK, you got a scholarship and you’re on the team and we know you can play. Now be an all-conference player at some point. He didn’t come out of Rutledge thinking he was going to be an all-conference player. He was just going to be happy to be out there and contribute. At some point in his career, I want him to be an all-conference player. Now you’ll see that work ethic and that expectation, and Skylar will do whatever he can. So his own expectations need to change.”
What will determine how deep your rotation goes?
“The quality of starters. If the starters are clearly better than their backups, the rotation will shorten both in minute and in number. That’s to be determined. The most I’ve ever played was 11. We played as many as 10 here on a regular basis, and probably the fewest was eight.”
Do practices change now that you’ve got a full roster of players?
“No. Practices may last a little bit longer because I’ve got a few more guys to get the rotations in. But I think the biggest thing about practice is this concept. This is not something that I think is not new to basketball, but it’s relatively new, and it’s something that we’ve employed for a long time, and that is contact practices vs. non-contact practices.
“In other words, if we’re going to go six days a week, how many games are we going to play in that week? Let’s say two. And let’s say you might have one or two other contact days, so four out of your six days. That means two days you’re not going to have contact. The guys would love to have contact every day, except the kind of contact we have. And that’s when we’re playing, buckle your chinstrap and we’re going to play as hard and aggressively and as physically as we possibly can, because that’s how we learn to play the game. So they’re going to need the non-contact days.
“So you don’t have six contact days and pare it down and go half speed. When we play, we play. And that’s how you teach them how to play with that kind of aggression and the ferocity that’s required.”
Jeronne Maymon becomes eligible in the middle of December. Do you go into the season with an idea of how he’ll fit in in December?
“J.P. Prince’s first game was Xavier at Xavier, and he stepped in and came off the bench and had a great game. It would be our anticipation that whenever Jeronne is available, if he’s in the rotation as J.P. had put himself in the rotation, that decision will have been made in the next few weeks. It’s not going to be for Jeronne to sit around on the sidelines. We’re going to play the first semester without him, instead of waiting for him to come, if you follow what I’m saying. We’ll be minus him. That’s the position he should put himself in. I don’t know if he’ll be in that position, but that’s the thing he should try to be in, that we’re missing our starting forward, if that’s possible for him. So we won’t be waiting until a few days before the game to know what to do with him.”
Is there a chance there could be a redshirt or two in this class?
“Yeah, it’s possible, but those are also decisions that are determined by where the guys finish up in the pecking order.”
Do you know what game Jeronne first becomes eligible for?
“That depends on the finals schedule, depends on what his finals schedule is. I think at Pittsburgh is a target, but can’t say for sure because finals will be over, but he will have had to have everything graded and turned in. So that’s a target, but not in concrete.”
Talk a little bit about where you see the Tennessee basketball brand.
“I think the brand is right inside that arena. We now play in the best arena in the country. Our fans have demonstrated that they are as supportive as any in the country. We have a style of play that we’re noted for. So I’m pleased with the brand.
“But the way you do that is by maintaining and continuing to do the positive things, rather than the negative.”
Is this the kind of lineup that you’ve been aiming for now that you have that full lineup or is it just whatever you have is what you have?
“Ironically, the team I inherited had looked more like the teams I had coached for a long time. It was a good situation for me to come into where I didn’t have traditional personnel. The question as it relates to why it’s changed is that we made the decision that rather than recruiting to the system that I have employed most of my career, we just decided to try to recruit the best players we could and then adjust the system accordingly.
“As it relates to the brand question, I think the kind of basketball we played in my first few years was really a brand that I was associated with. We’re not Clydesdales. We’re not slowing it down like that. We’re still running. You know, I’ve been head coach for 18 years, and I think my teams have led the league in scoring for 16 of those years, so we’re still very up-tempo. But we just might not be able to force tempo with a bigger lineup.”
With so many new guys and some of the uncertainty, is that something you addressed or did you even talk about it with them?
“I think that if I was concerned about how young we were, we wouldn’t have scheduled what we scheduled. Let’s say I changed the way we scheduled. That would have sent a pretty clear message to my team I don’t think they’ve got a chance to be very good. That’s why we scheduled down. I don’t think you schedule to the team. This is how we schedule. I don’t believe in scheduling up or scheduling down as to whether you think or don’t think this is going to be a chance to be a good year. This is the schedule, and we’re going to kind of deal with it.
“As far as the youth is concerned, I think it’s more newness than youth. These young men are coming in here now so prepared for college basketball. Jordan McRae has put on 18 pounds. It doesn’t look a lot different on that frame, but it is, and he’s got more to go. So Jordan would have a young body. But Trae Golden and Tobias Harris don’t look like freshmen. It’s not the youth of the team, it’s the newness. It’s five new guys that are going to be mixed in with the others that haven’t played together before. And those five guys haven’t been coached by me and this coaching staff before. That’s the deal. It’s not youth as much as it is that this will be the first go-round for us.