Opening comment. "I'm like a lot of you, I'm waiting to find out about my team, too. There are so many questions I have, but I'm finding out daily and that's the way this process will be. There's one thing that is very obvious, we're new. There are a lot of new faces, we lost our top six players from last year. We return four guys who haven't played much at all and six freshmen, so it's a learning process every day for us.
We've had one week of practices, it's kind of been an up-and-down week because we've had some injuries and some deaths that caused some kids to miss a little bit. We had a couple who couldn't be in the (Saturday) scrimmage and are just getting back today. Vernon Goodridge was hurt last Sunday and missed most of the week, he's back now. So it's been hit-or-miss. But I'll say this, we're better now than we were this time last week.
What was Goodridge's injury? "Vernon had his big toe stepped on by Wesley Morgan, it caused blood to get under the toenail somehow. He did have some swelling. But this is a little part of being youthful, understanding what hurt is and what pain is, it's two different things.
The first couple days of practice alone, and I mean this, it was how you put your socks on, how you tie your drawers, and for sure how you change ends in drills! It was as much of that as it was basketball. But we've gotten better, I'm not saying we're fully-dressed but we're getting better at the basics!"
Is it strange to have such a new team? "Well, it's different from the standpoint of having just so much newness. Even the guys that aren't youthful don't have a lot of experience. That's the big thing. I couldn't be more pleased with my freshmen, when you have freshmen that are detailed off the court it carries onto the court. That saves you a lot of headaches when you don't have to worry about a young man being on time, is he going to class and study hall. This is 12 weeks and I have yet to have a freshman late for anything. That's a huge statement right there, and I really believe that carries over to the floor. Their ability to learn shows."
Have you consulted with any other coaches about how to replace so much? "No! First off most coaches couldn't care less, most coaches are glad! No, I don't need to consult with anybody, I understand what we have and how to deal with it. That's not an issue at all. And in some ways it's good, hey, we're youthful and it's going to be an every-day experience and new and challenging. It won't be game-by-game, it'll be possession-by-possession. But at the same time we're very talented. It's not like I'm sitting here down and young and boy, I've got to go get a bunch of players at a lot of postions. That's not the case. I like my people, I like my talent, we're just young. With that there's a learning curve involved."
Has anything else surprised you about the freshmen. "You know, none of them have disappointed me. All of them have surprised me with details. We start at 6:00 in the morning, we eat breakfast, go to class, go to study hall, to weights…and in four weeks of summer school and eights weeks this semester none have been late for any of that. Hey, probably none of us in this room could do that! Their abilities on the floor, I'm very pleased with all of them.
The Delks (Reginald and Richard) are where I thought they would be. I like their abilities and basketball awareness. Their strength level is something we can't change overnight and will be a factor. But they've gotten better in every area. Richard showed me in the first scrimmage going up-and-down that he can be a point guard. Physicalness bothers him some but he's got great vision, he sees the post, can make the touch pass, see transition and people running. And those guys are gym rats. The first day-off was Wednesday, we'd gone two-a-days Friday through Tuesday. Reg was up here shooting! I've never had a guy do that, never. That's something that will pay off for him.
"Jamont Gordon is as good a freshman as you can ask to be right now, physically and mentally. Most freshmen have an adjustment physically and mentally, he's got that. He's probably a little better than I expected. Of all the young kids Vernon definitely needs more work, missing that week of practice doesn't help. But he's a great kid and got a great attitude. And the one that surprises me every practice is Bernard Rimmer. All of them I'm pleased with the progress they're making.
"I have to understand it's a fine line between being patient and positive, and prodding. That sounds strange mixture but that's the way it is. You've got to know when to prod, when to be patient, and when to be positive. That's the fine line I have with these kids and the personalities. But I haven't had to do a lot of prodding with the young kids so far."
Can you use being picked low in the SEC and the West to your advantage? "We'll use it, I can't change where we are in experience and youthfulness. Naturally our goals are the same, we're not going to use it or lack of experience as an excuse. We've got to do other things to offset that, and offset it with togetherness and toughness. Only time changes youthfulness. There's not pills, no drills I can give them. But we can offset with togetherness and toughness to a point. These first few weeks of practice that's all it's about for me, trying to develop toughness. It's about defending and rebounding. And you've got to change the pace of what everybody is used to doing. You don't mess around on the sidelines any more."
How has Jamall Edmdonson responded to the first week at point guard? "OK, I won't say great. OK. I've been on him pretty hard about just as a leader you have to lead by example or verbally. The best do both. It's obvious Jamall is not much of a talker so I've got to get him to do the other. We'll see how he can handle that."
How have the freshmen and veterans mixed? "It's been good. Wesley is a great leader, a great team guy and teammate. And those freshmen are such good kids you can't help but like them all. For the most part everybody else has been good, you always have incidents here and there but it's been good."
Is it good to have everybody so close in experience and talent? "I think what's best for your team is to have some separation in those, where you got guys you know have done it and some young guys you can bring along. The problem is we have some youth, and we have some guys who haven't done it. So you can basically throw them all in the hat, it's not the same type of experience and leadership you'd really like to have. All the guys with experience are doing it for the first time, too. They've been part of teams that have done it but they haven't done it. So we've got to find the positive things in it, and the positive is we have a bunch of guys that are kind of alike. Someone has got to rise to the top somewhere along the way and right now we've got 10, 11, 12 guys in the same boat."
On Jerrell Houston. "Jerrell has a lot of talent. His biggest problem is he's got to be consistent, he's up and down with his effort and his attitude like a lot of young kids are. He's got to find a way to be consistent with it and not let things change him, not let a bad play here affect the way you go back and defend. Or, not let something outside The Hump affect the way you come to practice. You have to find a way to be consistent. That's his biggest challenge and adjustment right now, don't do it two days and the next day bad, do it consistently."
On Dietric Slater. "One thing about Dietric is, when he steps between the lines he gives you everything he's got every day and every possession. What we need from Dietric is this, he has something this team desperately needs and that's toughness. He has that. We have to get him to get others to follow him more, he has to become a leader. We all know he doesn't talk a lot, but he's got to step up and get people to follow him some. A good teammate makes somebody else better, that's what he has to be able to do with that effort and toughness you play with every day."
Can Slater be like an Ontario Harper or Michael Gholar, who can be fit into any mix? "Yeah, I don't know what he is. Naturally on this team right now with our twos and threes, there's not a lot of difference who he'll guard. He'll guard either one or play either spot. But he's a guy that I feel comfortable with immediately, he's like a Frazier who can go out and guard, and a guy who can go rebound that basketball with toughness. Offensively he's been better so far (raps on the wood tabletop). We've got him down to two spins instead of three! So he's better, as I hoped all along playing time and experience and expecting more would make him more comfortable, where he wouldn't have to force things all the time. But he still has his moments, trust me!"
Who is your ‘energy' guy? "Right now it's Dietric. You have to have more people like that. Jamont has all the ability in the world to be that kind of guy, too. You'd like it more in your point guard, that's important, people feed off it and follow it. But Dietric is that guy, Jamont is right close behind and he has a lot of people respecting him, too."
Are scrimmages and exhibitions more important this year? "Everything is important to this team, there are so many things we need to do. That's just another step, because they'll be in front of a crowd and in a real situation it's important. That's why I have two exhibitions this year versus the one last year, I thought they needed the game experience more. Last year I had experience, that's why we had the close scrimmage with Alcorn State and only one live exhibition game. But because of youth I chose to have two just from a game experience standpoint."
If you had to choose… "Don't ask me that question! I'll let you guys decide now who my starting lineup is going to be! Is that what you were going to ask?
No, who would be the six or seven guys you would use in any type of rotation. "I really don't know right now. Having some people out the first week of practice keeps me from answering that, but I'll answer as best I can. Obviously Dietric is a guy you depend on; Jamont Gordon has been a special player so far; Piotr Stelmach and Wesley are guys you depend on. Michael Boler is a much-improved guy in making shots. I'm comfortable with the twins giving you everything they've got, are they where they need to be, no but I'm comfortable with them doing things.
"We know Walter Sharpe is not there the first seven or eight games but he's made big strides. Charles Rhodes is one of the kids that's been out since Friday having to go to Houston for his grandmother. But he's better, for me to say he's ready to depend on every step I'm not ready to say that yet."
How far as Sharpe come since, say, December? "December, he was in a coffin and most of the nails were nailed, too. At least we've got the lid off and he's out of it right now. He's not perfect by no means, but from where he was at to right now he's come 200 miles. He's going to class and study hall, he hasn't had but a time or two he's been late and had to run. And that's carried over to the floor, he's made progress because of all the other stuff. Is he perfect, absolutely not, but he's a lot better."
Are you concerned about finding that sixth guy off the bench that you always have? "To be honest it's not the sixth guy, I'm worried about that 1-2-3-4-5 first! I don't know who it is and it's not the big emphasis. As y'all well know my best five don't start most of the time anyway. My objective now is putting guys in positions, and this is where it's different. Because we're so new it's not about taking players and putting them in a system, that's easy to do. It's about taking a system and putting it around the players, if that makes any sense. You'll continue to find out more strengths and weaknesses of players. I've always said that if you ask a player to do something he's not capable of doing that's bad coaching. We're still in the process of finding out strengths and weaknesses, and finding out what is best for this team how they play. I mean offensively more than defensively, there we're going to try to do the things we've always done, play defense and rebound. Those are things that have to be constant for you at home or on the road. Your offense is not constant. Again, we're in a process of figuring out strengths and weaknesses. Perimeters and posts, how do you mix those together to make it best for your team. Is your perimeter best doing this, or your post best doing this? Because you can't just do one, you have to find that mixture to get the best of the two. That's what we're still trying to do."
Is it too early to identify the scorers? "It's something we'll learn as we go along and I figure out some thing. Jamont Gordon is going to be able to score a lot of different ways, I've figured that out already. I mean a lot of different ways. My post guys, I'm still trying to figure out what it best. Wesley is going to be one of those guys that does all the little things every day, every possession, every game right for you. He's got to be able to create plays for other people and I think he'll execute those things. So I think there's a place for Wesley from an experience standpoint.
"We've got to continue to find some post guys that can step up and score. Our best post scorer right now is Walter Sharpe, that's very obvious, Saturday nobody could guard him in the post. We've got to get Charles Rhodes to step up, in my opinion he needs to step up and become more of a primary guy on this team. He's better than he was, missing three days was bad for him, but he's better. I need more out of him. Just everything, he's a young kid and trying to learn and his role's changed. There are more expectations with that and he has to step up and meet them. But he's done OK." "It's not all bad. I like my team. I'm not sitting here with no players at no positions. I really like my young kids, we have some sophomores with some ability. It's about continuing to grow as a team and to develop that toughness. Even with the youth I like my talent."
How will you run this week's scrimmage? "We'll start off playing a 20-minute scrimmage, then probably play three 12-minute scrimmages changing teams, personnel."
Those first three will challenge the team. "For those who don't know anything about Chattanooga, this will be the toughest home opener we've had here in my 15 years. They were a NCAA team and is picked to win the Southern Conference. Most of the time those first three games are patsies, that game is not one of them. It was scheduled way back when I thought we had a couple more players than we have. I don't have to tell you about Charlotte, we all know what they are. That's a game you need to play late in December, but it will grow us up and make us better.
"And once you start playing there is no practice time. We have seven games in two weeks once we open up so there's not a lot of time to work out a lot of wrinkles."
What kind of team do you hope this can be? "The biggest thing is we've got to develop some toughness. We've got some talent, can we start developing toughness to meet that? If we do that we're a competitive team. We've got some guys that can run and ump and do some things, they have to be better basketball players. Like a Vernon Goodridge. He's a talent now, he can run and he can jump. But he has to understand how the game is played. Understanding that they're changing defenses and offenses, that's an adjustment for him. How those guys adjust is how we continue to improve.
Can this be a NCAA Tournament team? "You guys know this, our goals are the same every year. We're not going to allow youthfulness to be an excuse. I know on paper, is there a team that brings back less productivity than we do? You guys dig that up, I don't know. But even then our goals are always the same, that's what we're going to work for. We know it's going to be challenging but every day we ask these guys to give a championship effort. That's all we are concerned with, was it a championship effort. If it's not, it's not acceptable."
Would you tell the fans to be patient with this team? "Fans?! Tell them we're not gonna win a game this year! I don't need to tell them anything, you tell them! If anyone wants to jump off the ship after three games, I'm not concerned. I don't worry about what anyone thinks or says, or what you guys write. We're going to do it the best we can do it, give everything we've got every day and every possession. Expectations are where we want them to be, I said that years ago. We like expectations and we're sure not going to run from them because we've developed them. We're going to approach things the same way we always do. It's obvious I have to be more patient and understanding than I've ever been with this team. there's a fine line between being patient, being positive, and being prodding. But that's what I have to be with this bunch. I think our fans understand the success we've had and that we have a new team. Most fans wish we'd win every game no matter what your team's makeup is. That's why the expectations have done, is created that and we've never had that here before. We're not going to run from what we've created."
Which championship ring are you wearing? "That's a good question. This is my Dad's ring, with his initials. It's the first one, the 2002 (SEC) Tournament championship, with my Dad's initials. We wore the same size ring, so I wear his."