By Alex Norman
The most highly anticipated men’s basketball season in years got underway in solid fashion for Tennessee with two victories.
On Tuesday, November 6th the Vols beat Lenoir-Rhyne 86-41. Over 16,000 fans saw the Vols defeat head coach Rick Barnes’s alma mater. But the game didn’t start the way Barnes had hoped. The visiting Bears hit six of their first ten three-point attempts. Barnes called a time out midway through the first half with the Vols only holding a 20-18 advantage.
“We were talking about the way we were playing defense, carelessly,” said Barnes. “We were playing hard. There was no doubt that we were playing hard, but I thought we weren’t playing very smart.”
Tennessee came out of that timeout a different team, scoring 13 of the games next 15 points. They’d coast to intermission with a 50-30 advantage. In the second half Tennessee’s defense was stifling. The Vols allowed only 11 points by the Bears. Their hot three-point shooting went by the wayside as well, as they finished 1 for 25 after their opening flurry behind the arc.
Something to keep an eye on for this team is the bench play. You expect to see guys like Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield have nice nights, and they did so in combining for 26 points and 16 rebounds. Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden each reached double figures and controlled the backcourt. And Kyle Alexander had 16 points, five rebounds and four blocks.
But the substitutes will be needed to play key minutes this season. And if that first game is any indication, Barnes has some quality pieces to play with. John Fulkerson looked healthy and ready to go in 18 minutes of action. Derrick Walker chipped in 14 minutes. But the standout was sophomore Yves Pons. In 21 minutes Pons had seven points, five rebounds and three blocks.
Pons’s energy gets the crowd into a game and gives opponents all kinds of trouble. “I think everyone is happy for him because of how hard he works,” said Barnes. “He showed his athletic ability, and on defense he’s a guy that is getting better and better with that. 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. He wants to do the right thing. I still think he can get out more in transition, and hit the open court for us. We can throw the ball to him and he can go get it. A couple of those plays around the rim when he went up and scored it, I thought those were pretty impressive.”
Three nights later a Thompson-Boling Arena crowd of nearly 17,000 fans saw Grant Williams dominate a pretty good Louisiana team. Williams collected a game high 31 points in the Vols 87-65 victory. A talk he had with Barnes seemed to motivate Williams, one of the best players in the SEC.
“He’s the type of guy that’s going to challenge you, and he’s not going to sugar coat anything,” said Williams of Barnes. “He really reinforced the fact that I have to do my job every night and I wasn’t rebounding, and I feel like I did a god job with getting ten rebounds tonight.”
It was Williams’s sixth career double-double. He wasn’t the only Vol that had a good night, as four other players scored at least ten points. Guard Jordan Bone with ten points and a career high eight assists.
The Vols will look to improve to 3-0 on Tuesday night when they host Georgia Tech.