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Front Page - Friday, February 2, 2018

UT defies low expectations, projected as 4, 5 seed




Sophomore Forward Grant Williams, a 6-foot-6 forward, is Tennessee’s best player this season after being chosen to the All-SEC freshman team last season. He leads the team with 16 points and six rebounds per game. - Kyle Zedaker | Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com

You won’t find a lot of star power on Tennessee’s basketball team. You will find a roster of players buying into the system of third-year coach Rick Barnes.

Barnes coached 16 of his 17 teams at Texas to NCAA tournament bids with one Final Four berth before taking over at Tennessee, where he’s looking for his first trip to the Big Dance. He and the Vols appear well on their way.

Tennessee was ranked No. 22 in the nation last Saturday when they rolled to a 68-45 victory over Iowa State in Ames, Iowa. The Vols entered Wednesday’s game against LSU at Thompson-Boling Arena with a 15-5 overall record and 5-3 in the SEC.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had Tennessee as a No. 5 seed in his NCAA tournament “Bracketology” prediction last week before the Vols’ win at Iowa State and the Jan. 23 home win against Vanderbilt. Teamrankings.com had the Vols a No. 4 seed after the win at Iowa State.

Barnes and his players are proving doubters wrong. Tennessee was picked to finish 13th in the 14-team SEC in the preseason media poll. There were no Vols on the five-player first team or the seven-player second team.

Look for that to change postseason if the Vols continue their run.

Tennessee’s best player is 6-foot-6 sophomore forward Grant Williams of Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina, who was chosen to the All-SEC freshman team last year. Williams, averaging team-highs in points (16.2) and rebounds (6.4), was a three-star prospect out of high school and chose Tennessee instead of Princeton and Yale.

All but one of Tennessee’s 13 scholarship players were three-star prospects, per Rivals.com. Yves Pons, a 6-foot-5 freshman forward from Fuveau, France, was a four-star prospect, but he’s averaging 0.7 points, 0.3 rebounds and 3.9 minutes in nine games.

Tennessee’s starters are Williams at power forward, 6-foot-3 sophomore Jordan Bone of Nashville’s Ensworth High at point guard, 6-foot-5 sophomore Jordan Bowden of Knoxville’s Carter High at shooting guard, 6-foot-5 junior Admiral Schofield of Zion-Benton Township High/Zion, Illinois, at wing, and 6-foot-11 junior Kyle Alexander of Orangeville Prep/Milton, Ontario, Canada, at center.

Sophomore point guard Lamonte Turner of Florence, Alabama/IMG Academy is averaging more minutes than Bone (23.3 compared to 22.7).

All of the guards are versatile in the backcourt. Schofield can play the wing or post. Williams can play either frontcourt position.

Schofield is the team’s second-leading scorer (12.7) and rebounder (5.9). Turner is third in scoring (10.4) and averages 2.0 assists and 3.5 rebounds.

Bowden leads the SEC in 3-point percentage (.522), is fourth on the team in scoring (10.1) and averages 3.5 rebounds. Bone is fifth in scoring (7.6) and leads in assists (3.2).

Alexander has vastly improved since from the past two seasons and is averaging 5.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 20.3 minutes.

James Daniel III, a graduate transfer from Howard, is the seventh Vol averaging 20-plus minutes (he’s averaging 22.2). It’s been quite a role reversal for Daniel, who led the nation in scoring (27.1) two seasons ago at Howard. Daniel is averaging 6.8 points with two starts.

With Vols basketball on the uptick, the Ledger caught up Rob Lewis, who covers Tennessee hoops for Volquest.com/Rivals.com. Here’s what Lewis had to say about a variety of topics:

Tennessee was picked 13th in the SEC preseason poll; are the Vols just better than expected, and if so, why?

“I think as far as where they were picked, a lot of people just saw where they finished last year, they didn’t bring any names in the recruiting class, and they lost Robert Hubbs.

“You were kind of like, ‘How is this roster going to be better than they were a year ago?’ I think people underestimated just Rick Barnes more than anything. At least I underestimated Rick Barnes. I can’t speak for everybody else, because if you look at this team, until recently, (6-foot-8 freshman forward) Derrick Walker’s done a couple of nice things, it’s the same group of guys that they had.

“To me it’s player development. It’s the guys that are in the program just getting a better feel for what Rick wants out of them, because James Daniel has probably been their most consistent newcomer, and it’s not like he’s added a lot. He’s a nice player, but he’s not the reason they’re 15-5 and 5-3 in the SEC.

“I think people just sold Rick Barnes short about what he could do in developing the kids he already had, and what those kids could do as far as getting better inside the system, because when I look at this team, they’re not as good as they need to be yet, but defense is where I really see it. You know they can score some points, but they’re just so much better on defense. They won at South Carolina in a game where they weren’t great offensively.

“They played well enough defensively certainly to win at Missouri, held them to 59 points, and they lost a lead against Vandy but held them to 15 points in the first half. That’s strong. To me, it’s not real sexy, but it’s just what Rick has been able to do with the kids who were already on his roster, kids that were not big-time recruits.

“I think that’s another reason for the (low) perception, they don’t have a top-100 player on the team. The best guy they have is Grant Williams, somebody they beat Yale out for, and I think there’s just no star power. People looked at the roster and saw they weren’t bringing in any McDonald’s All-Americans, saw they lost Robert Hubbs, their leading scorer, and were like, ‘How is this team going to be better?’ I didn’t think they would be this good.

“I didn’t pick them 13th, but I didn’t think they were an NCAA tournament team. I thought they were an NIT team. It looks like they’re going to exceed that, for sure.’’

This is Barnes’ third year as coach. Is this the type of progress we should expect to see in his third year?

“When you’re talking about a guy being here three years, yes, you would expect that progress. But like I say, when you look at the players, you’re like, ‘Where is that going to come from?’ It’s not like they’re not good players, but outside of Grant Williams and maybe Admiral (Schofield) some nights, I don’t think other SEC teams look at Tennessee and go, ‘Man, we’d love to have that kid,’ or ‘Man, how are we going to stop that guy tonight?’

“I’ve come away with a much greater respect for what it means to actually have a system as a coach, to know what kind of player you want, what they need to do in it and to get them to do it, on defense, to get them to play offense like you want them to play. To me, it’s just a perfect example of the sum being greater than the parts, that he’s been able to get them to produce like they have.’’

Why do you think Grant Williams was so overlooked in high school, and why is he so effective now?

“It’s a mystery because he played on a big-time AAU team. He played alongside Harry Giles, the kid who went to Duke last year and had the knee problems. Tons of people saw Grant in the summer from that, and I think a lot of it was just his body. He really was kind of chubby as a high school player. He didn’t have a lot of lift or explosion, and as a result couldn’t play hard for a long period of time.

“I give Tennessee a lot of credit. That started with Dez Oliver, the assistant who’s here now. He was at Charlotte at the time where Grant is from, so he knew about Grant and his high school program. When Dez got hired here in Knoxville, one of the first things Rick did was take his word and go look at Grant, go check him out and that was one of the first kids that they offered in that class as a new class.

“And I give a lot of credit to Grant because the work that he has done on his body is remarkable. I would say he weighed pretty close to 250 pounds when Tennessee signed him (he’s now listed 241), and it was not a good 250.

“He was definitely carrying some fat and some weight. It’s not just his workouts. He’s a weight-room warrior, but he’s changed his diet so much. He takes that kind of stuff really seriously.

“Some of the plays he makes – you remember a couple of weeks ago the open-court dunk he made at Arkansas. He doesn’t make that play two years ago (as a high school senior). He just didn’t have the lift or the explosion.

“What really impresses me about him is how he’s able to score against taller, longer guys. They can make him struggle. A&M made him struggle, but to be 6-6, and that’s a generous 6-6, he is really effective. He’s got great footwork in the post.

“He has really, really nice touch from the turnaround 10- to 12-footers. They look like easy shots, but they’re certainly not when you’ve got 6-9 guys trying to affect it. He’s just a real, real conscientious guy who pays attention to detail and takes things seriously.

“I’m really impressed with Grant, from what he was a high school player to what he is now is remarkable. The coaches deserve credit for seeing something in him, but if he doesn’t do the work on his body that he’s done in two years, he’s not this player.’’

How much has Kyle Alexander improved from the past two years, and how has he improved?

“I think he’s gotten a little more consistent. He’s a little stronger. He’s never going to be a beast in there (listed at 220 pounds). He’s always going to have trouble with big, strong players. I think he’s just a little more confident, a little more consistent. But I still think he’s one guy on this team who’s not close to his ceiling, just from what he can do.

“Every once in a while, you just see a flash and think, ‘Why can he not do that all the time?’ But I think with him, he’s more confident. He knows what the coaches want from him. It’s kind of sunk in finally that they don’t need him to go out and get 15 points and 10 boards every night. They need him to play tough defense. He needs to be a rim protector.

“Kyle is one of the best guys on the team as far as understanding team defense, as the big man what he needs to do to help out and cover up mistakes. He’s gotten a lot better in that aspect of it, being able to play and know where he’s supposed to go without thinking, ‘OK, if they rotate this way, what’s my switch?’ He’s really come a long way in just being able to play instinctively out there, but I still think there’s a lot more in front of that kid.

“A lot of it goes back to he’s definitely not been playing basketball longer than five years. It may be five years now, but it’s no more than that, at the end of his sophomore year in high school (when he started playing). I think that’s a lot of what you’re seeing with him, is a guy that things come naturally to a lot of these kids who grew up playing 100 games a summer in AAU, and Kyle just doesn’t have that background.’’

What about Admiral Schofield’s role?

“I think that’s one of the neatest things about this team is Admiral’s versatility because he can play on the wing, and he can go down inside. You can shift Grant over to the ‘5’ (low post). Rick had a great comment about that a couple of weeks ago, and it goes back to how inconsistent that they are in the backcourt. He said we just have to wait and see how the game’s going, and that will tell us how we’re going to use Admiral.

“If Jordan Bowden doesn’t have it, if the guards are struggling, then Admiral’s more of a wing player, more of a 3. If Kyle Alexander’s not engaged like Rick likes to see him engaged, then Admiral gets a lot of minutes down at the four (power forward).

“I guess he’s a Swiss Army knife, kind of. Rick can really change some things on the fly during the game and change matchups in how they’re doing things because Admirals can play two or three different spots. And real kudos to him because he’s challenged to guard some of the guys he has to guard inside or outside, but because he’s just a unique athlete, he’s able to do it.’’

Jordan Bowden is having a solid year. What improvements does he need to make?

“I think he really lacks aggressiveness. It’s so unusual to see in someone who’s that great of a shooter. You usually have to talk those guys into sharing the ball. That’s just not Jordan’s mindset. He’s a great teammate, just doesn’t force shots. I think what Jordan’s been struggling with since SEC play started is for the first time in his college career he’s seeing the results of being a big part of the opponent’s scouting report. He came into SEC play shooting I think 61 percent from 3, it was just ridiculous, and it really tailed off the first seven games.

“He was 4 for 16 from 3 and just blew up against Vandy when he was 5 of 7. Like I say, I think Jordan’s really finding out how defenses are different when you’re probably the second or third name on the scouting report and coaches are yelling at kids in practice, ‘Don’t leave ‘23’! Don’t leave 23!’ and he’s having to learn to adjust to that.’’

What about the play of point guards Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner?

“I think one of the more remarkable things about Tennessee being so successful this year is that they don’t really have defined roles in the backcourt. It may be Bowden (at point guard). It may be Bone. It may be Turner. I think one of the common traits about really good basketball teams is that they have defined roles for eight or nine guys, and Tennessee’s just not that way.

“Rick’s like a baseball manager almost with a bullpen. He doesn’t know what his starters are going to give him some nights. He has to call down and say, ‘Get Turner warmed up. Bone doesn’t have it tonight.’ It’s a really unique situation, and all the kids are fine with it from what I can tell. I don’t see anybody grumbling about minutes. It’s just unusual because you can go back and look at the box scores.

“Very rarely have they had like Bone and Turner and Bowden all clicking on the same night. It’s truly riding the hot hand. To me that’s been one of the most surprising things about this team is the point guard spot in particular has been so up and down, yet here they are 5-3 in the SEC.’’

James Daniel III has gone from go-to player at Howard to role player at Tennessee. How has he handled it?

“It’s wild to think about. I remember joking with him after a game a few weeks ago when he had 10 assists, and he was like, ‘I’ve never come close to having 10 assists in a game.’ His last year at Howard, I think he was averaging 22 shot attempts a night, and he may not get 22 shots attempts in three weeks here, and he’s fine with it.

“I wondered how he would fit in, a guy that had played his whole career as a high-volume shooter, the No. 1 option for his team. He’s never the No. 1 option here. It’s something that coach Barnes I know talked with him about during the recruiting process, but you just don’t know how a kid’s going to act until he’s actually in the situation. I think James has been great.

“He’s steady. He’s not a pure point guard, but he’s a facilitator. He’s smart. For a team without a senior on it, except for him, a first-year player in the program, he’s brought I think a nice presence. He’s a really good teammate.

“His dad’s a coach, a longtime high school coach, so he’s smart and knows how to play the game the right way. His numbers aren’t huge, but I think he’s been a really nice addition.’’

With only one senior (Daniel), is Tennessee’s best basketball a year away?

“Yes, totally. The reason is they’ve got a chance to add a really good recruit, they’ve got a chance to add a five-star guy in the spring, a point guard, but regardless of that, just based on what I’ve seen this year and how college basketball is going these days (the Vols could be better next year).

“It’s about being like Duke with a bunch of one-and-dones, or being like Notre Dame and Wisconsin in recent years, being old and having a bunch of veterans that have been together, and I think Tennessee’s headed in that direction.

“I’m not saying they’re going to be a Final Four-Wisconsin type team, but I think they’re headed in that direction.

“If I was a Tennessee fan, I would be really excited about what this group is going to look like next year and the year afterward when this group of sophomores are seniors.’’

Barnes has been criticized for not recruiting higher-rated players so far at Tennessee. What’s your take on it?

“I’ve definitely been somebody who has questioned the recruiting, but then to me you can’t do that anymore when you see what’s on the floor and the way these coaches trust their evaluations (of recruits).

“It’s what Rick said all along: ‘We’re going to get kids in here that are going to work, that are going to stay in our system, that are going to develop, and then hopefully we can sprinkle some big-time players in.’ But he’s stuck to his blueprint.’’

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.