Tennessee’s starting lineup is filled with star power.
Grant Williams is the reigning SEC Player of the Year, Admiral Schofield is arguably the best player on the team and an All-SEC performer, and Kyle Alexander, Jordan Bone, and Jordan Bowden are regarded as some of the most underrated players in the conference. Even Lamonte Turner, who the coaches consider a starter in his own rights, is the reigning SEC Sixth Man of the Year.
As deep as the starting lineup is, Tennessee’s bench is just as deep. The Vols’ depth was on full display Tuesday night against Lenoir-Rhyne despite Jalen Johnson and Lamonte Turner missing the game due to injuries. Because of a hot start from the Bears, Tennessee relied upon the bench to really get things going.
“I thought our rotational guys were really, really good,” Rick Barnes said following the 86-41 win over his alma mater. “I thought Yves Pons and John Fulkerson did a lot of really good things. Derrick Walker settled down and came back and did it.”
The sophomore trio of Pons, Fulkerson, and Walker combined for 15 points on the night, but their impact on the floor was noticeable on both ends. They combined for 13 rebounds, four assists, three blocks, and three steals in 53 minutes of play.
“We were concerned about some different teams being out there,” Barnes said. “If you play eight players and try to keep the pressure up, it’s going to be difficult at times.”
Early on in the game, Lenoir-Rhyne did make it difficult for Tennessee. The Bears cut UT’s lead to 20-18 following back-to-back threes in the first half. Ten minutes into the game, Lenoir-Rhyne was 6-of-10 from the 3-point line but had not made a bucket from within the arch.
“That’s part of it,” Barnes said of the Bears’ threes giving UT trouble. “We were running guys off the line that shouldn’t have been running off the line. We were closing out and we were there. We didn’t have to leave our feet. When you do that, you’re causing rotations, and then kick-outs, long rebounds. Then you’re scrambling.”
It wasn’t just the defensive miscues that allowed Lenoir-Rhyne to stay within striking distance for much of the first half. Tennessee wasn’t getting after it on the boards, being out-rebounded in the opening 20 minutes 21-18.
“I was concerned about our rebounding,” Barnes stated. “We flipped that around in the second half. We got better there.”
Tennessee got better on the glass, indeed. Led by Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, the Vols went on to out-rebound the Bears 31-19 in the second half and 49-40 on the night. Schofield finished with nine boards and Williams had six second half rebounds after grabbing just one in the first half.
Williams’ rebounding effort in the first half drew the wrath of his head coach. Last Thursday in an exhibition win over Tusculum, Williams pulled down just three rebounds. Barnes was ill with his star player’s rebounding effort and let him know about it following the game. On Tuesday night, the lecture continued.
“I think it’s a want to,” Barnes said of Williams. “He has the ability to do it, but I think his thoughts are in other areas. To be the player that he wants to be, that has to be his number one area of ‘I’m going to do this.’ In our last exhibition game against Tusculum, Yves Pons just went and took it from him (Williams) twice. He’s got to have that mentality that nobody is going to take mine from me. I’m going to get mine and some that goes in the middle and some of the others. It’s a mindset. I don’t think there’s any question, it’s a mindset.
“For him to be the player he wants to be, that’s what he’s going to be judged on. because if you look at it tonight, he had 13 points, seven rebounds, he should be a double-double guy every single night. Every single night. But he’s going to have to make a conscious effort to do it.”
Pons once again snatched some rebounds away from Williams on Tuesday, but the sophomore also smacked the ball out of midair on several occasions, bringing Thompson-Boling Arena to its feet. He was everywhere, blocking three shots on the defensive end of the court while hauling in five rebounds and picking up a steal. The Frenchman even put a poor Lenoir-Rhyne player on a poster and capped the night with a put-back dunk.
“He showed his athletic ability, and on defense he’s a guy that is getting better and better with that,” Barnes said of Pons. “We think he can be a difference maker. We like him guarding guards. We like putting him out there and letting him guard the point guard a little bit. His blocks were spectacular.”
With rotational players such as Pons stealing the show with his SportsCenter-esque plays, it was junior point guard Jordan Bone who steered Tennessee to a season-opening win.
Barnes has said on multiple occasions that he thinks Bone was the most improved player over the summer, and it showed against Lenoir-Ryne. Bone scored 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, dished out three assists, picked up two steals, and pulled down six rebounds.
“With his poise on the offensive end, he had a command about him,” Barnes said of his junior point guard. “He is surer of what we are looking for, and I think he is more aware of trying to get guys going.
“I think he realizes when a guy like John Fulkerson is working hard, and he was trying to get it to him to try to reward him on the offensive end. Those are the things he never really thought to do, and now he is starting to. He just has to continue to get better in those areas.”
Bone’s newfound confidence and grasp of what he needs to accomplish on the court is evident. While Bone credits the coaching staff for his understanding of what’s going on, it’s how the coaches have pushed him over the years that’s led to him being a different player through two games this season.
“It also comes from the confidence that they have given me to play with,” Bone stated after the game. “I am supposed to command the team as a point guard, and they have given me the trust and confidence to go out there and command the team as well as the game.
“I learn every day from those guys. They have been in the business for many years. I just try to take everything they have taught me and apply it on the court.”
The No. 6 Volunteers will be back on action Friday night against Louisiana. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. ET in Thompson-Boling Arena.