As Rick Barnes made his way over to the Ray and Lucy Hand Digital Studio on Monday for his weekly press conference, he bumped into Kyle Alexander.
It was a brief interaction and one that began to stir emotions for Tennessee’s head coach and the senior forward.
“It’s hard,” Barnes said as senior night approaches. “He (Alexander) said, ‘well, you’ve been talking about it for a long time, that last game would come quicker than you think.’
“He said it’s really hard to believe.”
When No. 5 Tennessee and Mississippi State tip off on Tuesday night, Alexander will be playing in his 128th career game for the Vols. The native of Canada has averaged just 4.5 points per game during his time on Rocky Top, but he has meant so much more for Tennessee.
Alexander has been the linchpin of Tennessee’s defense the past two seasons. He’s blocked over 50 shots and grabbed over 180 rebounds in back-to-back seasons. When he went down with an injury and had to miss last season’s tournament loss to Loyola-Chicago, his importance on defense was evident.
“I’ve watched Kyle really grow,” Barnes said. “Coach Lanier used to put out a video of him where he was like a newborn giraffe, hardly standing up, wobbling all over the place, where he’s gotten so much better.”
The end to his senior season hasn’t gone quite as planned, at least from an individual perspective.
Alexander reached at least 10 points in 11 of his first 16 games this season. In the 14 games since, he’s scored 10 points just once and fouled out in four of those contests. In seven of those games, he’s recorded at least three fouls.
The referees haven’t been kind to Alexander on many occasions. He’s received a bad whistle in quite a few games down the stretch. But despite the slump, his head coach is confident he’ll snap out of it and play his best basketball when his team needs him most.
“He’s doing his part in terms of I know he’s getting himself prepared mentally, physically,” Barnes said. “Kyle is a guy that has put his heart and soul in it.
“He’s just getting started with basketball. His best is ahead of him. I’m hoping we’re going to get to see him coming down the stretch doing the things that we know he can do.”
The unfortunate part of Alexander’s career is that Tuesday night shouldn’t be his Senior Night. He should have redshirted his freshman season when he was severely underweight and having to wake up in the middle of the night to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
With the state of Tennessee basketball the way it was, Alexander didn’t have a choice but to play. He appeared in 32 games, logging 11 starts and averaging 12.2 minutes per game. In just his third ever season playing basketball, he averaged 1.7 points and 3.2 rebounds.
“I would be really excited sitting here knowing we had him back for another year,” Barnes said. “I think the next year in his life of basketball is going to change things for him.
“He’s going to be able to get the year that he should’ve been able to redshirt. … If we could have used him for five years, where would he be. We’ve reaped a lot of the benefits from him.”
Alexander isn’t the only Vol who will be playing his final home game on Tuesday night. Admiral Schofield and walk-ons Brad Woodson and Lucas Campbell will all be honored before the game.
For seniors, it’s always an emotional night. Like Alexander pointed out to Barnes, it comes quicker than they think. This group means a little bit more for the Vols’ head coach, as each player is unique with how they bought in to the program when Barnes arrived.
“Brad (Woodson), who when we got here, one of the first people we met…is going to be great at whatever he decides to do,” Barnes said. “A couple of weeks later, found out Lucas (Campbell) was on the track team but would rather be on the basketball team and he came over.
“They’re real. They’re authentic, and they have poured everything they had into this program.”
As for Schofield, in the world of Barnes, he arrived in Knoxville overweight, but a worker, and wanted to go at it with everything he had.
“We all know Admiral is emotional, and he wears his emotion on his sleeve,” Barnes said. “There is a depth chart with who works the hardest on your team…Admiral has always been at the very top of that list.”
Schofield isn’t the only one. According to Barnes, fans and media would never understand what Woodson and Campbell mean to the program with the way they prepare and help the rest of the team prepare.
“When I think about my individual relationship with each one of them, they’re all unique in a different way,” Barnes said of his 2019 senior class. “The fact of the matter is, our team, if they prepared like those guys prepare, we might not ever lose because those guys are tremendous in terms of knowing.
“It’s pretty simple, I love these guys.”