Back in the saddle

Antonio Barton

If you want the finest coverage of Vol hoops you've come to the right place. Check out this in-depth look at a Tennessee player who has been a catalyst during the team's recent explosion:

Imagine a jockey who slides almost completely out of the saddle during a race, then regains control in time to maneuver his horse into a contending position along the inside rail entering the home stretch.

That's essentially how Tennessee's Jeronne Maymon sees Vol point guard Antonio Barton.

"Man, I'm loving Antonio," Maymon said recently. "I can't get enough of him. Every time he shoots the ball and it goes in I'm proud of him. He's come a long way from the start of the season. He started off hot, then kind of went into a drought.

"Now he's back in his saddle, and that's really helping us."

That's actually a pretty accurate depiction of Barton's season, except there were two droughts.

A post-graduate transfer from the University of Memphis, the Baltimore native opened the season on fire, hitting 16 of 21 field-goal tries as the Vols won three of their first four games. A torn fingernail on his shooting hand was surgically removed at this point, however, and he slumped – making just 9 of 37 shots over a six-game stretch that saw Tennessee lose three times.

Barton was back in the saddle for Games 11-16, sinking 25 of 48 shots during a rally that saw the Vols claim five of six games. What followed, however, was a 12-game stretch in which he made just 16 of 65 shots and lost his starting job as Tennessee staggered to a 6-6 record.

When the calendar turned to March, however, Barton turned into a season-saver. He hit 7 of 11 shots (5 of 7 from 3) in a 35-point beat-down of Vanderbilt. He followed by hitting 4 of 9 shots (4 of 8 from 3) in a 28-point romp at Auburn, then closed the regular season by draining 6 of 12 shots (4 of 7 from 3) in a 27-point drubbing of a 20-win Missouri team.

Heading into the SEC Tournament Barton has hit 17 of his last 32 shots (13 of 22 from 3) and the Vols have dusted their last three foes by an average of 31.0 points per game in bumping their record to 20-11.

Although the other four starters played well during this three-game explosion, the catalyst clearly has been Barton.

"Tone's hitting shots for us," Vol teammate Jordan McRae said recently. "He's shooting the ball with confidence. Even the shots he's missing we're thinking they're going in."

Barton admits that he expects every shot he launches these days to go in, as well.

"My confidence level is high right now," he said. "I would say it's as high as it's ever been."

That wasn't always the case. He attempted just one shot in a Dec. 14 loss at Wichita State, just three shots in a Feb. 1 win at Alabama and just four shots in a Jan. 18 loss at Kentucky. Occasionally coaches and teammates had to remind him to be more aggressive.

"Sometimes my teammates tell me I should shoot it when I pass up shots," he said, grinning sheepishly. "My coaches tell me to shoot it. That time (on the bench) prepared me: You can't come out and not shoot the ball. They tell me to shoot the ball every chance I get."

He essentially did that the past three games, launching 32 shots. Only McRae (33) attempted more.

"Thanks to my teammates for finding me," Barton said. "I'm knocking down shots. I've just got to continue to work and get better."

In addition to his improved shooting, Barton has been doing a better job on defense, helping Tennessee limit its last three foes to an average of just 45.7 points per game. He says the reason for his improved defensive play is simple.

"It's just wanting it, taking pride," Barton said. "It's not just me. Everybody's helping each other out. On the rotations we're scrambling. We're talking and communicating out there on the court."

Because he played shooting guard probably 75 percent of the time at Memphis, Barton suffered some growing pains while evolving into a full-time point guard for Tennessee. Head coach Cuonzo Martin never lost confidence in him during the transformation.

"He's been telling me I have to set the tone, be the floor general, the coach on the floor," Barton said. "I have to set my teammates up and get everything moving swiftly."

Barton certainly "set the tone" the past three games – making baskets, dishing out assists and playing solid defense. His emergence has solidified the point-guard play, which had been wildly inconsistent previously. Suddenly, the Vols are looking like a Sweet 16-caliber team.

"We picked up on it a lot," Barton conceded. "But it's just us going out there, having fun, trusting and believing in each other."

Ultimately, this season will be remembered for how the team plays in postseason. Like a successful jockey, Barton realizes that he can't let up until the finish line has been crossed.

"It is surprising (what Tennessee did the past three games) but not that surprising," he said. "I knew we were capable of this the whole year. We just had our ups and downs but right now we're playing Tennessee basketball how it should be.

"We've just got to keep it going down the stretch."


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