Tennessee’s win over Auburn on Saturday wasn’t pretty. The Vols were sluggish yet again offensively, and despite limiting Auburn to a sub-25 percent shooting percentage, the (then) second-ranked Vols were only able to win by three. Despite offensive struggles, though, Tennessee’s defense came to play.
In Tennessee’s dominant defensive performance against Auburn, a few unsung heroes emerged off the bench, including Jahmai Mashack, Jonas Aidoo and especially, Tobe Awaka.
Awaka was one of Tennessee’s final commits of the 2022 recruiting class. Originally a member of the 2023 class, Awaka reclassified in July to join Tennessee this season. By mid-December, the Hyde Park, New York, native was making a sizable impact for the Vols.
The 6’8″, 250-pounder has been a highly effective piece down low for Tennessee, growing to become one of the Vols’ best rebounders. More than the stat sheet, Awaka brings an intimidating physicality and intensity to the court that opposing teams struggle to match.
Awaka’s teammates have taken notice of his physicality. Following Awaka’s gritty performance against Auburn, in which he earned significant minutes in a close first half, Josiah-Jordan James spoke highly of the freshman.
“Everything about Tobe is physical,” James said. “The way he walks, the way he talks, he’s just a physical human being. He’s a big dude.”
Due to Awaka’s style of play, James has even questioned whether Awaka chose the correct sport.
“I was telling the dudes on the court, I think he should’ve played football,” James added. “I’m really surprised that he didn’t… Everything I think a football player would do, he brought that to the game of basketball. His play style, his physicality, that’s what we need from him.”
James continued to call Awaka an ‘enforcer’ for the team, much like Uros Plavsic has been over the past couple of years.
Tennessee’s star senior added that Awaka’s physicality could also be a tool on the offensive side of the ball.
“We know that Tobe, one-on-one, we are taking Tobe every day of the week, just because of the way he practices. He’s always going to put his body on the line and give 100 percent, and that’s what we need out of everybody.”
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Awaka’s consistent ‘body on the line’ style of play has resulted in the big young man becoming a serviceable piece for the Volunteers in his first year. Against Auburn, Awaka saw a career-high in minutes in SEC play. Awaka saw eight minutes in the first half, which was a significant reason the Vols could find their footing. Tennessee trailed 10-6 when Awaka entered and led 19-16 when he exited. The freshman continued playing well in the second half and finished the game with the second-highest +/- on the team.
Awaka may be a quiet personality, but his style of play speaks volumes on the court.
“He’s a very quiet guy,” Tennessee guard Santiago Vescovi said. “But he’s not gonna let anyone step on top of him. He’s done a great job down there in the paint. We know we can throw a shot up, and he’s going to go get it. He’s battling 24/7 every night.”
Awaka’s great practices are translating come game time, and as his understanding of the college game grows, Tennessee Basketball’s ‘football player’ will only become a more significant part of what the Vols do on a game-to-game basis.
“What you see him do, he does it every day in practice,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “He’s really starting to understand the game and he’s going to battle… Our guys would tell you that when he’s out there, they know that he’s going to bring some physicality and do whatever he has to do to get guys open.”