Tennessee relying more on its freshmen late in season
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee's starting lineup is getting younger as the season is getting older.
Injuries and inconsistency have forced the Volunteers into a youth movement as they head toward the stretch run of Rick Barnes' debut season as Tennessee's coach. In a 75-65 loss to Arkansas on Saturday, Tennessee started three true freshmen in one game for the first time since Feb. 3, 2007.
Those three freshmen - Kyle Alexander, Shembari Phillips and Admiral Schofield - are probable starters again Tuesday when the Volunteers (13-16, 6-10 SEC) visit surging Vanderbilt (18-11, 10-6).
''They've had probably a bigger role (than expected) because we really thought that we'd get a lot more out of the seniors as a group - and (junior) Robert Hubbs,'' Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said Monday. ''That's what we thought going in.''
The newcomers have become particularly essential lately because leading scorer Kevin Punter Jr. has missed three straight games with a stress fracture in his right foot. In the Arkansas game, Tennessee also played without Hubbs, who has an injured right knee. Barnes doesn't expect Punter to play Tuesday and says Hubbs' status for the Vanderbilt game is uncertain.
Tennessee is trying to avoid its first losing season since 2004-05.
''We're fighters,'' Schofield said after the Arkansas game. ''That's one thing we do have in this group. We're fighters. We're going to fight to the end. ... That's just who we are as a team. We've got to sustain that. That's one of the things that we don't do well. We don't sustain that fight through the whole game.''
Although Tennessee has dropped four of its last five games, the emergence of the three freshmen provides hope for the future. Not one of them was rated among the top 250 prospects in his class according to the composite rankings of recruiting websites compiled by 247Sports, but all have shown they can contribute at the SEC level.
Schofield has made 17 starts and nearly recorded his first double-double Saturday before finishing with 15 points and nine rebounds. Phillips has started Tennessee's last six games and has averaged 14 points and 3.3 assists over Tennessee's last three contests.
Alexander averages just 1.9 points per game, but the 6-foot-9 forward has provided rebounding and shot blocking.
They'll be joined next season by freshman point guard Lamonte Turner, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA this season.
''At the end of every practice every day, it's like clockwork,'' Barnes said. ''The last guys to leave the practice court are Lamonte, Kyle and Admiral for certain - those three guys. We're trying to get Shembari to understand that too, that he's got to be in there. But those other three guys along with the walk-ons are out there long past (the time) practice is over.''
Barnes said all three still have plenty of room to improve. He wants Phillips and Schofield to get more consistent on defense. He also wants Schofield to attack the basket more aggressively and Alexander to have a quicker thought process and more of a scoring mentality
For now, the trio will try to help Tennessee spoil the NCAA Tournament hopes of its in-state rival.
Vanderbilt already beat Tennessee 88-74 in Knoxville last month and has won five of its last six games. While Vanderbilt's recent surge has boosted the Commodores' NCAA Tournament resume, they can't afford a home loss to a team with a losing record.
''The game here with Vandy was I still think the worst game we've played all year, and they had a lot to do with that,'' Barnes said. ''But it looks like they're playing arguably the best basketball in the league right now.''