Tennessee basketball fans can catch a glimpse of their team on Saturday, but it may be a few more days before they see how well the Vols have adjusted to the loss of point guard Trae Golden.
That’s because senior Antonio Barton, who transferred from Memphis after Golden left the program and was immediately eligible because he graduated in August, suffered a left leg injury in practice a week ago and hasn’t practiced since.
So who will start at the point on Saturday when the Vols take on Florida Southern in their first of two exhibition games at Thompson-Boling Arena? Freshman Darius Thompson, who by all accounts has progressed well since showing up on campus last June, will get the call.
“This is good opportunity (for Thompson) to compete and make some plays, dribble-penetrate, just get a good feel for it,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “He’ll be playing against some good guards. Those guys will push the ball, so he’ll have to defend, run his team. I think it will be good for him.”
Thompson’s acquisition last spring was crucial for Tennessee, which decided that November 2012 signee Travon Landry wasn’t going to be the answer at point guard and began looking for someone who was. The Vols, who released Landry from his scholarship—he’s now at New Mexico State—found Thompson available after he de-committed from Vanderbilt. He signed before Golden’s departure, and before Barton was recruited, Thompson faced the possibility of being thrown into the fire as a true freshman starting at point in the Southeastern Conference.
Barton’s arrival took considerable pressure off Thompson, the son of a college coach who has been able to learn at his own pace. With Barton out of the picture for the Florida Southern game, Thompson thinks he’s ready to step in. Senior shooting guard Jordan McRae will back up the point.
“I feel like I’m really prepared” Thompson said. “My coaches got me ready to play, and all the leaders on the team came and told me to get ready. I think it will be good experience for me.”
Though the two are competing for minutes, Barton has taken Thompson under his wing.
“(Antonio) has played three years of college basketball,” Thompson said. “Sometimes when I’m doing something wrong, he’s there to tell me what I need to do better. So I take a lot from him; he’s been in the game (a long time).”
In addition to Thompson, another freshman guard will make his debut. Robert Hubbs, a former five-star recruit, has made his presence known in practice the last few days, shooting with consistency and accuracy from 3-point range. Yet another freshman, A.J. Davis, a 6-8 forward Tennessee assistant coach Kent Williams compared to former Vol J.P. Prince, will also be on display against Florida Southern. He’ll back up the power forward position.
Florida Southern, which plays in NCAA Division II, was 27-6 last season and ranked No. 8 in the final NABC D-II poll. The Moccasins averaged 84.9 points in 2012-13, seventh in Division II. They led the classification with a +6.8 turnover margin.
Starting guards Kevin Capers and Dominic Lane, both of whom averaged 13.4 points last season, return. Thompson will have his hands full, but this game doesn’t count, so it’s just a learning experience.