Rick Barnes was technically talking to the media Monday at his press conference, but most of his words were directed at a specific person standing off to the side just feet away. That person, Robert Hubbs, watched as his coach — known for his refreshing candor with the media — answered the question on if he was back to normal after recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery in December.
"I hope he's not back. I hope he's a whole lot better," Barnes said of the junior. "I think it's going to get to him. I know he's here somewhere, and I hope he's hearing every word I'm saying. He's got to play harder. We don't flow as well when he's on the wing. Of our wing runners, he's the slackest at doing his job. He doesn't get to the corners. He just jogs down the floor. Defensively, he's got to get a whole lot better."
Barnes knows what he's doing. He's never been shy in his praise or criticism and he dishes it out fairly and, when necessary, intrinsically. So when he goes after the second-leading scorer on the team, one who's averaging 12.6 points per game despite missing a key stretch with an injury, it's obvious this isn't just lip service.
"I will say this, if Robert Hubbs will decide to play harder and really make a commitment to his teammates, we'll win more games in this league this year than people think," Barnes said. "He can be a real key guy. I'm all good for guys being nice guys and all that, but when you get on the court, you've got to have a little edge. He's got to get an edge on the court, and he hasn't gotten it yet."
The Newbern, Tennessee, native has been a pivotal piece to Barnes' small lineup which helped the Vols dominate Florida and almost knock off No. 21 Texas A&M at home. The first-year Tennessee coach wants Hubbs to be a slashing wing with an aggressive defensive mind, but despite hitting 45 percent of his field goals and snatching 54 rebounds already (he had 93 all last season), opposing offenses have keyed in on Hubbs, attacking him with ferocity for what they perceive as a mismatch.
"It all starts on the defensive side. That is where I am lacking," Hubbs said. "I just have to take pride in it. I need to do it for my teammates and I because it will help us in the long run. We know what we are capable of, but I definitely need to step up on the defensive side."
Hubbs has been much more involved in the post offensively this season, backing away from 3-point shooting to become more of the 15-and-in player Barnes wants him to develop into. It's shown in the box score, where he's cleaning up the glass and finding success against bigger players inside, as well as in his mentality as a player.
"I have definitely gotten a lot more confidence," Hubbs said. "I am doing a lot more post work this year. I am definitely capable of doing it on both sides of the ball. I am able to hang with the more physical guys. It is the will to do it each and every possession."
Tennessee faces Georgia Wednesday night at the start of a pivotal two-game road stretch in which it is looking for its first win outside of Thompson-Boling Arena this season. There's no doubt Hubbs will have to improve defensively and continue his offensive production for the Vols to have a chance, and he knows it.
Because his coach isn't shy about letting him know.
"I think he could be one of the best players in the league, but he can't until he's willing to get out of his comfort zone," Barnes said. "God's given him some great ability. He hasn't gotten close to being as good as he can be with it. I know he's here, and I know he's listening to me, so I'm really talking to him right now."