The fact Tennessee’s hottest player, Josh Richardson, was benched because he showed up late for Saturday’s game should have helped Tusculum College … but it didn’t.
Richardson’s replacement in the starting five, freshman Darius Thompson, combined with fellow point guard Antonio Barton to get the Vol offense flowing from the opening tip as the hosts annihilated their Div. II visitors 98-51 before an announced crowd of 14,175 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Thompson produced six first-half assists in helping the Vols to a 52-27 intermission lead. The 6-foot-5 rookie finished with nine assists, two points, a block and a steal in 23 turnover-free minutes at the point.
Thompson’s spectacular work running the offense freed Barton to play mostly on the wing, where he can fully exploit his offensive abilities. He responded by hitting 5 of 8 shots (4 of 7 from 3-point range) on his way to 14 points, three assists and just one turnover, also seeing 23 minutes of court time.
“When he (Darius) is on the floor with me it takes a lot off of me,” Barton said. “I can look for my shot more and be more aggressive offensively. I love being on the court with him.”
Likewise, Thompson enjoys being on the floor with Barton.
“We work well together,” Thompson said. “Tone is a better scorer, so when I’m in there I just find him open shots. It’s just easier when it’s me and him.”
A pass-first point guard in the purest sense, Thompson said that has been his mindset for a long time.
“In high school I was pretty much the same way,” he said. “I’d get my points but most of the time I was trying to get assists. I was always getting in trouble because I’d be wide open and my coach would be yelling ‘Shoot the ball!’ and I’d still be passing. It’s just my natural instinct to pass the ball.”
Thompson made his only shot attempt (a layup) on Saturday but contributed significantly with his ball-handling and pinpoint passing.
“It feels good getting nine assists,” he said. “Getting my teammates involved felt real good. Still, I think I need to start being more aggressive looking to score the ball. That will help our team a lot.”
Informed that Thompson recorded nine assists in just 23 minutes, Barton was not surprised.
“At one time in the game I asked Darius how does he make some of those passes,” Barton said with a shake of his head. “He has very good court vision.”
Apparently, all of the Vols have good court vision these days. Since playing horribly in a 58-65 home-floor loss to North Carolina State on Dec. 18, they have jelled offensively. Tennessee shot 52.5 percent overall (6 of 12 from 3) with 20 assists in an 82-67 Game 11 defeat of Morehead State, shot 50 percent overall (11 of 18 from 3) with 18 assists in an 87-52 Game 12 beat-down of Virginia and shot 57.4 percent overall (11 of 23 from 3) with 30 assists in Game 13 against Tusculum.
Shooting 50 percent from the field three games in a row is impressive. Draining 28 of 53 from beyond the arc during that stretch is downright imposing. So is posting 68 assists in that three-game span.
“Nobody on this team is selfish,” Barton said. “We all like to see the next man shine, so we try to find the open guy. That’s what we live by. We don’t try to force too much, and the open guy is the go-to guy.”
For all of his humility, Barton readily admits that he has considerable impact on Tennessee’s success. Limited by a knee injury, he played a backup role in the opener at Xavier … and Tennessee lost. Slowed by surgery to remove the nail from his right index finger, he went 2 for 6 with zero assists against UTEP … and Tennessee lost. Having lost confidence in his shot, he went two games without scoring (0 for 1 at Wichita State, 0 for 8 against North Carolina State) … and Tennessee lost both.
Clearly, the Vols struggle when Barton isn’t contributing.
“Being the (point) guard, there’s a lot on me,” Barton conceded. “I’m a coach on the floor, so a lot of guys feed off my energy. It’s imperative that I come out and play hard on the defensive end and knock down shots from the beginning.”
He did that on Saturday and, sure enough, Tennessee took control from the beginning. The Vols scored the game’s first 11 points and were never seriously threatened.
Jordan McRae scored 17 first-half points and led Tennessee with 19. Jeronne Maymon added 16 points. Barton chipped in 14 and little-used D’Montre Edwards came off the bench to contribute 12 points in 16 relief minutes. Richardson added 10 points in a rare backup role. Jarnell Stokes, just 3 of 10 from the field, also scored 10 for the Vols. Freshman Robert Hubbs missed the game due to a shoulder problem.
Darius Carter posted 22 points to pace Tusculum, which falls to 1-12.
Tennessee, 9-4, opens Southeastern Conference play Tuesday night at LSU. As a transfer from Memphis, Barton is unfamiliar with life on the road in the SEC. As a freshman, Thompson also is new to the rigors of SEC road games.
“I don’t know what it’s like,” the rookie said, “but I’ll find out soon.”