Q: What fundamentally had to change from last year? Because obviously some things had to change from last year to this year. What did you do-- coaching philosophy, strategy, practice, whatever-- what had to change?
A: Well, a number of things had to change. We didn't have just one problem. We had a number of things that weren't where they needed to be. So what we did as a staff, what I did was spend a significant amount of time essentially taking apart each aspect of our program, and deciding whether or not it was sufficient for us to be able to compete at the level we need to compete at. In some cases the answer proved to be yes, but in some cases it proved to be no. In the areas where the answer proved to be no, then we went about making the adjustments we felt like needed to be made.
Q: Did you have to look at yourself first?
A: Absolutely. That was the first thing. Yes, I had to change some things. About me.
Q: Care to say what?
A: I'd rather not. Yeah, I had to be a nice guy! No, there were just some things... those are kind of private issues and inhouse things that... my attitude needed to change. Let's put it that way. I needed to change my attitude. Not that my attitude was bad... it just needed to be adjusted to make us better.
Q: Tubby Smith said that he needed to change from maybe not being as negative to being more encouraging.
A: Well, that would apply to me, yeah. Yeah, I can get that negative slant, sometimes too much. I'm trying to get better, though.
Q: To prevent that snowball effect like last year, is it important for the players to be that firewall, or is it the responsibility of the coaching staff to be that firewall to prevent that slide from happening?
A: The coaches don't win the games. It's a combined effort. When we're successful, it's because of the effort and the commitment that our players put in. And that's not to say that when we're not successful that the opposite is true, because that's not the case. When you like experience like we did last year, and you lose some close games, your mindset becomes one of questioning, one of wondering whether or not you can be successful. With those doubts creeps in the fear that maybe we can't. As a group, we did not handle that well. Now, there were a number of reasons why it wasn't handled well. But again, I think the experience of having been through it... I think the mindset of our team is different. I think their level of confidence and their level of optimism is completely different. Their level of togetherness and passion for one another is different. It's pretty obvious that our level of physicality is different. I think all of those things combine to give them reason to believe that we can be better.
Q: Talk about the league this year. Some people feel it's going to be down.
A: I hate to say this, but the league is just going to be very competitive, very athletic. People are wondering if it's going to be down-- there's going to be some new faces, but it's not going to be down. Because this league recruits some of the best players in the country every year. We all thought Kentucky was going to be down a year ago. I don't know what they were down from!
Q: Some of your guys have put on a ton of weight in the offseason. How much of a concern was that? Did you tell the guys to work out three or four times a week?
A: That was one of the things that was dissected and was greatly improved upon. I think you can look at our team and see the difference. The commitment that we've made as a team is that that's going to continue throughout the season.
Q: You have a lot of experienced players back. How much of a difference is that going to make for you?
A: I think that's huge. We go from last year being one of the most inexperienced teams in the league and having no seniors, to this year... we've got seniors, we've got guys who have been around the program. We're probably one of the more experienced teams in the league this year. Other than great talent level, experience is about as valuable as anything you can have.
Q: How do you rank this season for you as a coach? Is it a critical season? Is it a factor in that as far as winning the games, there's going to be more talk about you? How do you look at it? The guys have said, we're not putting any more pressure on ourselves when we hear stuff like that. How do you look at that?
A: When I signed a contract to work at Vanderbilt, I was very astutely told by an advisor of mine that that did not give me a right to a job, it only gave me the right to be paid. The way I look at the season for me is that I don't look at the season for me. I look at the season for our team. I want our team to have success because of Matt Freije and Scott Hundley and Russell Lakey and Martin Schnedlitz-- those guys came in here four years ago and they deserve to have that kind of success. They've worked hard, they've been great kids, they've been great ambassadors for our institution. And they deserve to have that kind of success. I'm not concerned with what this season means for me. It's not about me. This season, like every season should be, is about our players and our team. That's my focus. I can't control the decisions that are made relative to my job status. I can only try to control the kind of experience that our players have. That's what I'm going to try to control.
Q: Could you talk about the recruiting of Matt Freije? He was saying that he didn't do the summer circuit at all.
A: Right. That was a huge advantage for us, because he was severely underrecruited. I called Coach Williams at Kansas and told him that there was a kid at Shawnee Mission West that I thought was good enough to play for them. Coach Williams went to see him play and thought he was good, but they had Nick Collison. So his decision not to recruit Matt was very understandable. But I felt like if Kansas didn't recruit him, that we would have an opportunity to get him. Fortunately we did. I think he's been glad about that. It was one of those lucky deals where a lot of people didn't know about him because he didn't do the summer circuit. He had an excellent high school coach, Donnie Campbell, who would work him out and do some individual things. The first time I saw Matt play was in one of those individual workouts.
Q: Who else was privy to him?
A: There were a number of teams. Utah I think made a trip to see him. I know Kentucky was calling, and I don't know if they ever made the trip to see him play. But he was not at the forefront of everybody's mind, because they hadn't seen him.
Q: Were you guys trying to keep the genie in the bottle?
A: Well, we certainly weren't going around broadcasting to people that he was a good player. Kansas State recruited him. There were a number of the local teams in the Missouri Valley League that recruited him. But we were just fortunate, because when Kansas decided not to recruit him, we just had a little bit of an advantage.
Q: Is he a better player because he did not run around and play pickup games?
A: Probably, because he really developed his skill level. I think that's what you sacrifice when you run around and play five-on-five basketball all the time-- your own skill level. Matt obviously is a very skilled guy for a guy who's 6-9, 6-10. It's his skill level that sets him apart from the other players he competes against. I don't think his skill level would be nearly as high if he had done nothing but play games all the time, as opposed to getting that individual work, getting lots of shots up and those types of things.