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VOL. 133 | NO. 45 | Friday, March 2, 2018

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Dave Link

‘Gym Rat’ Building Another Winning Program

Dave Link, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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Tennessee’s basketball team is rolling into March Madness.

Amazing.

The 16th-ranked Vols (22-7, 12-5 SEC) entered this week second in the SEC standings and having clinched a double-bye in the March 7-11 SEC tournament with one regular-season games remaining, Saturday against Georgia at Thompson-Boling Arena (6 p.m. ET, SEC Network).

Few people, if any, saw this coming from the Vols. Especially not the SEC media, which picked Tennessee to finish 13th in the 14-team league in its preseason poll.

Coach Rick Barnes, talking here with John Fulkerson earlier this season, is “not afraid to alter a kid’s shot and work with him,” says Chris Dortch, editor and publisher of Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook. “He’s just a program builder.” (Jerry Denham/The Ledger)

Chris Dortch, editor and publisher of Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook, was one media member picking the Vols 13th.

“The one thing in my defense is I can say we write the little summary in Blue Ribbon, and I wrote that I thought Tennessee could be a postseason team,” Dortch said last Saturday, shortly after Tennessee’s 73-65 victory at Ole Miss clinched the double-bye.

“This was the most difficult year I ever had picking the SEC. There were so many teams of equal ability. It may look bad if you’re 13th, but really that probably means you’re somewhere between sixth and 13th, and those were just jumbled up and you almost kind of throw them up and see where they stick.

“I felt this was a postseason team just because they were deeper than they’ve ever been, and they had a better point guard play just by committee than Tennessee had ever had for a long time, maybe (since) C.J. Watson (2002-06).

“They just really haven’t had a great point guard, and I wouldn’t call these guys great, but you combine (Jordan) Bone and (Lamonte Turner), you’ve got a pretty good little player there.”

Third-year coach Rick Barnes steered the Vols through a February slump when they lost two of three games, and their top player, junior forward Grant Williams, wasn’t at his best.

Tennessee snapped back from a Feb. 17 loss at Georgia by beating Florida at home on Feb. 21 and then winning at Ole Miss.

Dortch explains the double-bye into the SEC tournament quarterfinals is crucial.

“Some people say it’s better to play your way into it, but I’d much rather be there and be working out and be able to specifically scout your opponent,” Dortch adds. “It’s just a huge advantage.”

Barnes has built this team with players fitting his system. Williams was the only Vol on the coaches’ preseason all-conference team, and he was second team. He was a three-star prospect out of high school and chose Tennessee over Princeton and Yale.

All but one of Tennessee’s 13 scholarship players were three-star prospects, per Rivals.com. Yves Pons, a 6-5 freshman forward from Fuveau, France, was a four-star prospect, but he’s averaging less than a point and a rebound and only 4.5 minutes per game.

However, Barnes has developed 24 NBA draft picks during his 31 seasons as a head coach at George Mason (1987-88), Providence (1988-94), Clemson (1994-98), and Texas (1998-15).

Dortch sees a pattern in Barnes’ success in program building.

“This isn’t a surprise, especially if you dig down in Rick Barnes’ history,” he acknowledges. “Except for George Mason, where he won 20 games in his only year there and left, every year where he’s ever been it’s taken him two or three years to build a team of guys that want to be coached, have decent basketball IQs and just know how to play the game.

“It’s kind of a misnomer that he was a guy who (recruited stars like) Kevin Durant and T.J. Ford. He got those guys, but it was much later into his Texas career, so this is what he does. He builds programs.

“He’s not afraid to alter a kid’s shot and work with him. He doesn’t hardly use his office. He’s got a table set up in the gym and that’s where he stays. He’s a gym rat. He’s just a program builder. I think for a coach who’s won (656) games, I think he’s underrated.”

Perhaps, this team is underrated, too. The Vols should win at least 22 games, which has only been done nine times in program history.

This is the first year Tennessee has a top-four SEC finish since 2014, when Cuonzo Martin’s last Vols team was seeded No. 4 and lost in the semifinals to top-seeded Florida. Martin, now the coach at Missouri, led UT to a Sweet 16 appearance in 2014.

Dortch says matchups are crucial for the Vols in the SEC tournament, where they’ve traditionally struggled.

“(The Vols are) OK unless they face a team that physically overmatches them in the post, and Alabama and Georgia both do,” Dortch explains. “It depends on matchups. If they can avoid a team of that description, and Mississippi State fits that description too with two 6-11 starters, so I think it depends on that, but I think they can go a long way.”

Pairings for the NCAA men’s tournament will be announced Sunday, March 11, and the 64-team portion of the tournament begins four days later.

As of Feb. 22, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had Tennessee as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and seven other SEC teams getting NCAA bids. Lunardi’s other SEC teams in the NCAA were Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Florida and Texas A&M.

Again, Dortch says matchups are big for UT in the Big Dance.

“If they get favorable matchups, they could go a ways,” Dortch adds. “They really could. If you told me they were going to end up in the Elite Eight, it wouldn’t surprise me because if you look at what they’ve done this year, off and on, they beat Purdue, and Purdue didn’t lose again for months, and Purdue has two 7-footers, so the matchup there wasn’t favorable.

“They had (North) Carolina beaten. They led Villanova by 12 at the half, so they’re not afraid of anybody.

“They’re capable. If Grant Williams was 6-8, nobody would be saying anything about their deficiencies because they’d have everything. They’ve got all kinds of shooters. Their guards are a little small, but nobody’s really abused them to my recollection posting them up. They do such a great job of help-side defense and switching on ball screens and just playing defense.”

As March Madness approaches, here’s a look at the Vols’ starters and key backups:

STARTERS

PG Jordan Bone
6-3, 176, sophomore, The Ensworth School, Nashville
6.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.9 apg, 22.7 mpg

Bone has started all but one game at point guard this year, but surprisingly, he hasn’t always been on the court with the game on the line. Barnes challenged Bone’s lack of aggressiveness getting to the basket before the Feb. 21 win over Florida, and then stuck with Bone until the buzzer against the Gators.

SG Jordan Bowden
6-5, 185, sophomore, Carter High School, Knoxville, 22 Feet Academy, South Carolina
10.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, .431 3-pt pct., 27.8 mpg

Bowden has started every game, leads the Vols in 3-point percentage and is their top rebounding guard. He started 28 games as a freshman last season and led the Vols’ in free-throw percentage (.841).

W/SF Admiral Schofield
6-5, 238, junior, Zion-Benton Township High, Zion, Illinois
12.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 27.4 mpg

Schofield, who scored a career-high 25 at Ole Miss, has started all but one game this season and is undoubtedly the team leader.

He’s one of the SEC’s top rebounders during SEC play (fifth going into Ole Miss game with a 7.0 average). Last season Schofield was a candidate for SEC Sixth Man of the Year when he averaged 8.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 19 minutes. He started 22 games as a freshman and averaged 7.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 18.7 minutes and led the team in free-throw percentage (.897).

PF Grant Williams
6-7, 241, sophomore, Providence Day Academy, Charlotte, North Carolina
15.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, .475 fg pct., 28.4 mpg

Williams has started every game this season and leads the Vols in scoring and minutes and is second in rebounding behind Schofield. He was on the All-SEC Freshman team in 2016-17 when he averaged 12.6 points and 5.9 rebounds.

C Kyle Alexander
6-11, 220, junior, Orangeville Prep, Milton, Ontario, Canada

5.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.7 bpg, 20.2 mpg

Alexander’s minutes and productions continued to increase this season. He’s started every game and posted consecutive double-doubles against Texas A&M (Jan. 13) and Missouri (Jan. 17). Last season, Alexander started 23 games and averaged 3.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 14 minutes. As a freshman, he started 11 games and averaged 1.7 points, 3.2 rebounds and 12.2 minutes.

OFF THE BENCH

PG Lamonte Turner
6-1, 183, redshirt sophomore, Sparkman High, Florence, Alabama; Arlington Country Day, Jacksonville, Florida; IMG Academy, Bradenton, Florida
10.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.9 apg, .394 3-pt pct., .909 ft pct., 24.2 mpg

Turner hasn’t started a game this season, but splits time at point guard with Bone. He leads the SEC in free-throw percentage during SEC play (.938) and has two 25-point games (against Auburn and South Carolina) and scored 24 against Georgia Tech. Last season, Turner played in 32 games with 16 starts and averaged 8.2 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 20.7 minutes.

G James Daniel III
6-0, 172, senior graduate transfer, Phoebus High, Hampton, Virginia.; Howard University
6.0 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 20.8 mpg

Daniel is Barnes’ second-ever graduate transfer. He was NCAA’s Division I scoring leader as a junior at Howard in 2015-16 when he averaged 27.1 points.

G Chris Darrington
6-1, 179, junior, Scott High, Toledo, Ohio; Vincennes University (Indiana)
2.8 ppg, 0.7 rpg, 9.0 mpg

Darrington was a first-team NJCAA All-American last year, but battled an ankle injury early this season. His best game was against Lipscomb on Dec. 9 when he had 11 points, five assists and three steals, all season-highs.

F John Fulkerson
6-9, 210, redshirt freshman, Dobyns-Bennett High, Kingsport, The Christ School, Arden, North Carolina
1.9 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 9.5 mpg

Fulkerson is still working his way back from two off-season surgeries to repair a fractured right wrist and dislocated elbow, injuries sustained Dec. 15, 2016 against Lipscomb. He was averaging 4.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 16 minutes when hurt.

F Derrick Walker Jr.
6-8, 238, freshman, Sunrise Christian Academy, Bel Aire, Kansas
2.0 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 8.8 mpg

Walker was one of the Vols’ top players during their European tour last summer. After missing the Feb. 17 win against Florida with an ankle sprain, Walker played crucial minutes against Ole Miss last Saturday when Williams got two early fouls; Walker finished with four points on 2-of-2 shooting while playing solid defense.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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