By Josh Ward
You’re probably familiar with the expression, “Tough times don’t last; tough people do.”
Excuse the cliche, but it applies to the story.
It’s the story of Olivier Nkamhoua, one of the most important players on Tennessee’s basketball team.
The Vols’ forward has had an up-and-down senior season. His ups have included a double-double at South Carolina while shooting 10-for-10 from the field, and his down moments have included a two-point scoring effort in a home loss against Kentucky.
Nkamhoua had scored in the single digits in five straight games following that performance at South Carolina on Jan. 7.
“What’s happened to Olivier?” fans and media were wondering.
Then came Saturday, when he exploded for a career-high 27 points in Tennessee’s 82-71 win over Texas at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Nkamhoua looked unstoppable, hitting 12 of his 15 shots while grabbing eight rebounds. He made sure his Texas opponents knew they wouldn’t have an answer for him.
So what changed for Nkamhoua to play the way he did against the Longhorns considering his recent struggles?
A chat with head coach Rick Barnes helped.
“A couple weeks ago we had a long, long talk where he got emotional with me and just said, ‘I don’t know why but I want to do it and you know I want to do it,’” Barnes said. “The fact is I do know he wants to do it and the fact is he’s a guy, practice he’s coming back every night. … You just keep working but I’ve also told him he’s got to embrace the mental side of it.
“More than anything, understand what he’s truly good at and he is good.”
Tennessee can be great when Nkamhoua plays like he did against Texas.
That’s not to discount the importance of his teammates.
Zakai Zeigler, who’s back in the starting lineup at point guard, makes the Vols go.
Josiah-Jordan James stretches out opposing defenses and can guard almost anyone on the floor.
But who can provide the upside in Tennessee’s front court like Nkamhoua?
Tennessee missed Nkamhoua’s presence in the NCAA Tournament last season when he was out due to an ankle injury.
Nkamhoua worked hard to return and play at a high level this season. And he’s still working, even through struggles that have shown up during SEC play.
That won’t keep Barnes from pushing him.
“Coach keeps it real and he’s going to tell you exactly what you need to do to keep getting better,” Nkamhoua said. “Not to be good, not to stay the same, not to be OK, not to stay consistent. But to keep getting better.
“You might have the best week of your life and end up having one of those conversations with Coach because all he wants is for you to keep getting better.”
That will be Barnes’ message to the entire team as it enters the month of February. Tennessee is ranked second in the AP poll and No. 1 in the KenPom.com rankings.
But what matters is how Tennessee will play in the postseason. No one knows that better than Barnes.
“We’ve got a chance to be as good as we want to be,” Barnes said. “I think that it’s up to one thing: are we tough enough to embrace the daily grind? Not worry about going to the Final Four, not worry about the NCAA Tournament. But can we build a team that can be successful that time of year?”
That’s the question everyone will ask until Tennessee gets an opportunity to answer it in March.
But enjoying the ride along the way might be worth it in the end. Just ask Olivier Nkamhoua.