During Tuesday’s media availability, Rick Barnes mentioned he was considering starting sophomore Yves Pons against Eastern Kentucky depending on how practice went that afternoon.
Pons must have had a good practice, because he was indeed in the starting rotation on Wednesday night against the Colonels.
In his first career start, the sophomore scored a career-high 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting. He knocked down a 3-pointer to start the game, and he grabbed five rebounds and blocked two shots through the course of the night. Considering Pons scored just 17 points in 24 games last season, it was a remarkable debut in the starting lineup.
“I thought he really did a good job,” Rick Barnes said following the game. “I think he’s going to get so much better on the offensive end, but he’s doing the things that we wanted him to do to start the game with his defense and rebounding.”
The other side of the coin to Pons starting is the loss of a starting job for a teammate.
With Pons in the starting lineup, Jordan Bowden found himself on the bench to begin the game and didn’t check for the first time until the 16:26 mark.
Despite starting, Pons played just two more minutes than Bowden, 22 minutes to 20, respectively. Though there wasn’t a big difference in minutes played, there was a big difference in production. Bowden had a rough shooting night, connecting on just three of his seven shots from the field. He was just 1-of-5 from the 3-point line.
“I’m not concerned about Jordan Bowden shooting the ball,” Barnes said. “I just want to see him do all of the other things.”
That’s where Bowden struggled – taking care of the other things. The Knoxville native had just one rebound and one assist but turned it over twice and committed two fouls. But even worse than not taking care of the other things, Barnes doesn’t like how tentative Bowden is on the floor right now.
“We don’t want any of our guys to be tentative,” Barnes said. “We need him to be more aggressive and we need him to want more out of himself. And the more he demands from himself, the more it will help our team.”
Most young men wouldn’t handle being benched well. Bowden, though, is the perfect teammate and team player. It’s why Barnes didn’t explain to Bowden why he would be coming off the bench.
“I just said this was what we’re going to do,” Barnes said of his conversation with Bowden. “He’s had more opportunities than anybody. He’s had it pretty easy. I’ve coached probably everybody on the team harder than him because he’s one of those guys that’s normally doing the right things, but we think he can do more.”
Tennessee’s coaching staff believes Pons can produce either way, whether it be starting or coming off the bench. But the hope regarding the decision to sit Bowden is that he’ll be able to sit on the bench and get into a flow mentally. That way when he enters the game, he’s ready to go.
“I felt like we had to get more out of Bowden, and maybe sometimes you do that by changing it up for him and let him sit and watch it,” Barnes said. “Then he’ll come in and see it differently.
“I just wanted him to have a chance to look at it instead of starting. But we expected to get the same out of Yves whether he started or not, but like I said, I think it helped the rotation a bit.”
Bowden isn’t the only Vol Barnes wants more out of. On multiple occasions against Eastern Kentucky, Barnes went small. When John Fulkerson or Kyle Alexander is the lone big man on the floor when Grant Williams is out of the game, Barnes would like to get more out of those two because even though he doesn’t know yet if he has to go small, he likes to go with smaller lineups at times.
“We like it because we really think it creates a match-up problem with other teams, especially with Grant Williams playing inside and Admiral Schofield being on the perimeter,” Barnes explained. “We think it creates a problem there.
“What is good about those two guys, even when we have them playing with one big guy, throughout a possession those guys will interchange. One guy will go outside, inside, which is really hard. They have learned to do that on their own, which gives us versatility. You might think that Admiral’s playing on the perimeter, and once he sneaks inside, Grant will move down inside. We need to make it hard on people to just lock into those guys and know where they are all the time.”
The small lineup certainly paid off for Tennessee on Wednesday. For the second time this season, both Williams and Schofield surpassed the 20-point mark in the same game. Referred to as Peanut Butter and Jelly, Williams scored 21 points and Schofield dropped in 20.
Williams recorded a double-double during his scoring outburst, grabbing 11 rebounds, eight of which were in the first half. He added five assists and was a perfect 9-for-9 from the free throw line.
Scofield on the other hand, was lights out from the field. The senior was 8-of-9 and knocked down his only two 3-point attempts on the night.
“I thought they were patient, he and Grant both really,” Barnes said of their performance.
With the 95-67 win over Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee improved to 5-1 on the season. The contest marked the 500th game the Vols have played in Thompson-Boling Arena. Now 371-129 on its home floor, Tennessee will return to action on Sunday afternoon looking for win No. 372.
The Vols will tip-off at noon on Sunday with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.