Jordan McRae has picked up where he left off last season, and torching the competition in any way possible. He has the versatility to spot up for a long range jumper right over the defenders outstretched hand, or drive right by the defender to the basket for an easy layup, electrifying dunk, or at times an and-one situation.
The few times McRae isn’t having his best night, which is a very rare occasion, the two big guys of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon are there to pick up the pieces by using their brute strength to manhandle opponents on the boards, in the paint, and for easy second-chance baskets.
Combined these three are forced to be reckoned with, as expected during the regular season, but they alone are not the formula that makes this team go.
Some of the unsung heroes for this season’s Vols basketball team consist of a very diverse bunch. An underrated true freshman point guard that’s money with almost every pass he makes, a transfer student that has a three-ball Jesus Shuttlesworth himself would appreciate, a sophomore who’s had to battle his way out of the ashes to make himself known, and a known defender who wants to show the nation he can do more than just guard from end to end.
Darius Thompson isn’t notorious for lighting up the scoreboard, but can sling the basketball all over the court from any position to give his fellow teammates an opportunity to score. Averaging three assists a game in only seven minutes per game, Thompson is a pass first point guard, which is something the Vols have been missing since the early years with former coach Bruce Pearl.
Thompson was labeled as only a three star coming out of high school, but with his contributions on the court from both the offensive and defensive end, he’s become a key card to an already loaded deck through his progression through the season.
Memphis transfer Antonio Barton is also a rising star at the point guard position for the Vols. Unlike Thompson, though, Barton is more of a scorer. He shoots a clean 41 percent from three, which could be much improved if not for him playing the first half of the season with an injury on his shooting arm. While he could still use some improvement from the free-throw line, as could most of the team, Barton has been nothing but good for the Vols since his arrival on Rocky Top.
Derek Reese didn’t make his first appearance of the season until recently, but did so with a splash. The sophomore forward rang in his first career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds, in only 19 minutes of play, against Morehead State.
Reese is a forward, but is a bit undersized. At six-foot-eight he’s only 220 pounds, making it difficult for him to battle with the bigger guys down in the post. He’s improved on his post ability, and added to his outside shooting ability which makes him an under-the-radar kind of threat when he’s on the court since he can stretch the opponents defense out.
Josh Richardson is best known for his ability to defend. He’s one of the best defenders in the SEC, but what many forget is his ability to score as well.
Over the past six games Richardson has averaged 13.5 points per game, which includes five double-figure scoring performances, and a career high 20-point performance against Virginia, one of the nation’s top defenses.
Coach Cuonzo Martin has been telling Richardson all season to be aggressive. As the Vols are turning to the tougher grind of their season he has done just that, and it’s paying off well for the team as a whole.
For the first half of the season most of the work was being done by McRae, Maymon, and Stokes, and when they didn’t have their best nights it resulted in four quick losses for the Vols. Since then they’ve won five of their last six and much of that can be contributed to the contributions being put forth by some of the smaller role players on the team.
After clinching their fifth win in six games, second in conference play, Tennessee (11-5, 2-1) will take to the road on Saturday to face their arch rivals, the No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats (12-4, 2-1), on Saturday, Jan. 18 at noon. With the SEC being down yet again, and this being the only scheduled meeting between the two rivals, Saturday’s game could be a must win for both squads tournament hopes as the season rapidly progresses towards March.