KNOXVILLE – Few teams, even in major college basketball, have a versatile 6-foot-8 option on the bench who can stretch opposing defenses with his shooting and play a variety of spots on the floor.
But Tennessee, off to a slower-than-expected start at 6-4 before playing Morehead State on Monday night, had just that in sophomore Derek Reese waiting in the wings. UT coach Cuonzo Martin, in need of a lineup tweak, gave Reese his first action of the season against the Eagles.
Reese responded with 10 rebounds and 12 points on 5 of 9 shooting, including a pair of 3-pointers that helped the Vols get back in the win column. It’s too early to say if the win will help propel UT to play better going forward. There’s also no guarantee that Reese will remain an important part of the rotation. But for a team still trying to find the right pieces to make a run in SEC play, Reese could be the spark it needs.
“I talked to him and told him to stay ready because he had the ability to make a shot – that was his reputation coming out of high school,” Martin. “Now when he is able to make that shot, it is able to stretch that defense out. He is now a guy that will go and get his nose dirty and get a rebound, which last year it was more of a catch and shoot, and his shots were not falling.”
So why keep Reese on the bench so far in 2013 while the team struggled to four non-conference losses? There are a couple of explanations. One is his defense.
In the midst of Reese’s hot offensive night against MSU, there were times when he gave up points on the other end as well. MSU guard Luka Pajkovic blew by Reese at one point early in the second half for an easy bucket. As much as Martin likes to see points on the board, he hates giving up uncontested baskets on D even more.
That’s still a work in progress for Reese. So is his level of strength and his overall consistency in practice. Though his game is guard-like in nature, his height makes it necessary that he defends players in the post on defense in many scenarios. A shoulder injury early last year set back is overall strength and conditioning level. He’s trying to make up for lost time now and his work is starting to show dividends.
“He had to continue to play hard and get better,” Martin said. “He had to continue to get mentally and physically tougher. He always there as far as approaching getting better. He is lifting weights extra and continuing to work on his game.”
“I knew I was going to be the type of person that had to keep working,” Reese added. “I kept working hard and praying. That motivated me to work hard every day. I listened to Coach Martin. He said he wanted to see more consistency with me in practice. So I just keep working at it in practice."
Reese will have to keep working. He knows that from his experience last year as a true freshman.
After missing a majority of the non-conference portion of the schedule with a shoulder injury, he returned to help lead UT to a win over Xavier on Dec. 29 of last year and became a regular in the rotation after that – playing at least 12 minutes in eight games over the next month. But his minutes began to curtail in late February and he was only a spectator for the stretch run – including the SEC tournament and UT’s appearance in the NIT.
"It's a good feeling, but I can't stop now,” Reese said. “I need to keep being more consistent and move on from this. I need to keep going up from here."
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga