We interrupt a compelling football coaching search to tell you that Tennessee has a basketball team.
It may be better than the low-ball estimate of Southeastern Conference media giants who assigned 13th place in their October forecast. You are correct, there are only 14 teams in the league.
The Volunteers defeated Georgia Tech in Atlanta last night, 77-70, for their sixth victory in seven games. The winning edge was a closing barrage of free throws. Tennessee led most of the way but when it mattered most, big guys Grant Williams and Kyle Alexander were whistled to the sidelines for generally gentle misbehavior. The Vols struggled six minutes without a goal. The Yellow Jackets chopped away, to within two points, a precarious situation for visitors anywhere.
Instead of folding under duress, the orange team got a clutch basket from Lamonte Turner. Moments later, Tech closed the gap to one. Turner hit two free throws and switched the pressure back on Tech.
The conclusion showed courage. Coach Rick Barnes smiled – once.
“We found a way to win,” he said.
Turner led the winners with 24. He scored 11 in the closing push. He went nine-for-nine from the foul line. Williams had 11 points when he wasn’t in handcuffs. Alexander had 11 rebounds. Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bowden were of considerable help.
Tech played smarter than I am accustomed to seeing from Josh Pastner teams. It switched defenses back and forth and actually disrupted the Vol attack. Tennessee countered with another excellent defensive effort and some old-fashioned toughness.
So far, in this young season, the Vols have exceeded expectations. That didn’t take much. Expectations were low. The team was more interesting than good last year. I thought it ran low on gas. Guards couldn’t guard guards.
The Vols finished 10th with an 8-10 SEC record. I suppose the loss of Robert Hubbs led to the even lower projection. I never thought Hubbs really fit what Barnes was trying to do.
The coach is attempting lightweight magic. He is trying to win with defense and taking good care of the ball. He has not been able to recruit five-star studs capable of dominating on offense. He has not come close. He does not have the seven-foot star to compete for all-America honors.
What he does have is improved guard play and some genuine gladiators who may not realize they are not great. Williams is one. He can muscle larger men who are not as tough. He can leap and shoot over larger men who are not as quick.
He is 6-7 and 241. He plays bigger.
Jordan Bone and graduate transfer James Daniel III are the primary point guards. Bone needed the older Daniel as a companion.
Daniel is a leopard who has changed his spots. He’s been a shooter since third grade. Two years ago, he was the leading scorer in the country, 27.1 points per game, at Howard.
He came to Tennessee because he saw available minutes in the big league. He was surprised when Barnes told him he could best help the Vols by becoming a playmaker, a distributor, a ball-handler when the heat is on. He scored three points last night but helped win the game.
The object lesson Daniel delivers is to listen when Barnes speaks. The coach isn’t always right but he knows more than most of us.
It is a premature conclusion, but I believe this could become a tournament team if there is another Williams hidden on the roster. One more would be enough.
Freshman Derrick Walker is a maybe. He is a rugged 6-8 and about 240. Instead of Grant Williams II, he is now a proverbial bull in a china shop.
I’ll keep wishing John Fulkerson might mature into a Williams helper. He plays with enthusiasm. Maybe Jalen Johnson will emerge as a key contributor. He is an athlete who can run and jump, the son of parents who were on college track teams.
What I think I see is more talent than Barnes had last year. Added depth allows the coach to demand maximum effort on defense. Added depth leads to everyday competition in practice.
The combination might lead to 10 SEC wins instead of eight. Wouldn’t that be something.
Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org