It’s Tony Jones time in Tennessee.
Tony Jones (middle) is confident the Vols will play well despite head coach Bruce Pearl missing eight of the next nine games.
After a decade spent alongside Bruce Pearl, associate head coach Tony Jones will take charge of the Volunteers for eight of their next nine games, starting with Saturday’s SEC opener at Arkansas.
GVX247 spoke with Jones after Thursday night’s practice, and here’s the transcript of the full conversation with the man who is about to become UT’s de facto head hoops coach.
Come back to GVX247 on Friday morning for the full transcript of an interview with Pearl, who will fly with the Vols to Arkansas but must leave Bud Walton Arena three hours prior to tip-off.
Q: We’ve all known for weeks that Bruce’s suspension was coming. Two days from the team’s first game without him, where’s your main focus?
JONES: “Just to have the team comfortable with our coaching staff, and what we’re going to do. And then just to execute our game plan, offensively and defensively. We have a system in place, and it’s my job to help execute that system.”
Q: Did you have a different role in today’s practice?
JONES: “Well ... somewhat, and then maybe not so much. They know what I can do. Coach Pearl is still here with the game plan. He’ll be fully involved with game planning tomorrow. I know what that game plan is. I’ve worked on it the whole day, so we’ll be prepared.”
Q: You’ve been in this business a long time, but never as a de facto head coach at a place like this. Will you be nervous Saturday?
JONES: “There’s always a chance you’ll be nervous. Of course I’m going to be nervous, but it’s going to be a nervous fun, a nervous energy. This is something I’ve been doing for 17 years. Once the game starts, everything will be fine.”
Q: But you can at least admit Saturday will be different, right?
JONES: “Oh, yeah, it will be. It will be strange. But it’s something that I’ll adjust to, something that I’ll deal with, something we’ll execute as a coaching staff.”
Q: Did the last five minutes of the College of Charleston game — after Bruce got ejected — help you in any way prepare for this?
JONES: “I think it did. The reps helped. The speed of the game, being able to articulate my message in the huddle, for the players to understand what I wanted them to get done. I think it helped, but I’m not happy that he got ejected.”
Q: Are you planning on getting ejected Saturday?
JONES: “(Laughter.) No, but a lot of people have called me up and said the first thing I need to do is get a technical foul, to show how intense I am.”
Q: You and Bruce have been together for a long time, but you’re not the same person. What are some of the main differences between you guys?
JONES: “We’ve been together for 10 years. I’ve known him for 25 years. I’ll be a little bit more calmer. I won’t be as demonstrative. I won’t be as animated. I’ll get my point across to the officials in my way. The players will know what I expect. I’ll be a little bit more calmer, but I’ll have an intense desire and intense passion to win.”
Q: But less foot slams on the floor?
JONES: “I won’t do that. I don’t want to mess up my knees.”
Q: Is there even the tiniest sense of relief that the team played so much better last night? I can’t imagine going into this stretch with another loss would have been very comforting.
JONES: “Only if we can build on it. Obviously we’re capable of playing with any top team in the country, (as evidenced) by beating Pittsburgh, by beating Villanova. Sometimes we don’t play to our capabilities. If we play to our capabilities like we did Wednesday, I’ll be happy. But nothing less.”
Q: This staff and some of the veterans on this team have been together a long time. Can that help during this brief transition?
JONES: “Of course. We’ve got veteran leadership. You can throw in Scotty Hopson, too. He’s been here three years. Josh Bone is a senior. The list goes on and on. We’ve got some young players that are playing important roles with Tobias Harris and Trae Golden in the rotation. John Fields is a newcomer. Jeronne Maymon is a newcomer playing. But these guys are veterans. They’re older players. They’ve been through the wars, and they’ll be fine.”
Q: Do you get the sense that this team and these assistants will want to play and coach for Bruce, since he can’t be there?
JONES: “Well, obviously it is what it is. My focus for this basketball team and myself is to win basketball games.”
Q: But it does help that the team is playing a little better now, right?
JONES: “We played better on Wednesday night. Let’s just hope we can build on that performance Wednesday on Saturday, and continue to play with the passion that this team is capable of doing.”
Q: You can’t play with your best intensity every day — no one can do that with any job — but is that this team’s most important thing?
JONES: “Sometimes. Sometimes they have to come out with a commitment to effort, to really be excited about playing. Partly, that’s our job. That’s part of our job as a coaching staff, to get them prepared, get them ready to play. They were prepared on Wednesday; I fully expect them to be prepared on Saturday to play, also.”
Q: When Bruce first became a head coach, Dr. Tom Davis told him to remember to be himself. Bruce isn’t Tom Davis, and you’re not Bruce. Will you go with your guy when things get thick during this stretch?
JONES: “I think I will in some instances. But I’ve been with Bruce for so long. There’s things that he’s done on the basketball floor in some instances as far as decision-making that I knew he was going to do it before he even done it. He’ll be in there in spirit. I know what he likes to get done and accomplished out there on the floor, and I’ll try and execute it.”
Q: What do you think is going to be your biggest challenge in the heat of the moment Saturday?
JONES: “Well, my biggest challenge will probably be to make sure that the referees understand that we’re here to win the basketball game. Don’t take this basketball club lightly just because Bruce Pearl isn’t here. We’re going to come and fight, we’re going to compete, and we expect to be treated that way.”
Q: What do you know about Arkansas?
JONES: “Talented team. They’re 9-1 at home. They’re a collection of fine athletes. Rotnei Clarke is a very accomplished shooter. Marshawn Powell was a member of the (SEC) All-Freshman team. He was predicted to be second-team preseason All-SEC this year. And they’ve got a lot a lot of depth, and a lot of athleticism, and that’s something that we’ve got to try to combat. They’re transition offense, it can be impressive, especially in their building, so we’ve got to be able to get back in transition defense and control the defensive glass.”
Q: Is this team excited to get into SEC play?
JONES: “Of course. Coach Pearl has stressed that no one’s in first place, no one’s in last place right now. We have the opportunity to be able to go to Fayeteville, Ark., win a basketball and be in first place, irregardless (sic) to what happens with any other opponent, any other SEC team this Saturday.”
Q: How important is it to win this first game without Bruce and set the tone for his absence?
JONES: “Well, every game is important, especially in the SEC. We’ve got to remember, we’ve got to be cognizant that it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. A couple of games is not going to define you as a basketball team, or a season. But it’s good to get off to a good start.”