KNOXVILLE – Asked why he made the switch at starting point guard from Antonio Barton to Darius Thompson on Wednesday night against Ole Miss, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin simply stated that it was time.
It wasn’t the most specific answer, but that “time” could symbolize somewhat of a passing of the torch at point guard from the Memphis transfer to Thompson, a 6-foot-5 true freshman who chose the Vols over offers from Butler, Purdue, North Carolina State, Vanderbilt and others last spring.
When Barton announced his intentions to transfer from Memphis and play at UT his senior season, it was assumed that the veteran guard would guide the Vols through 2013-14 and then Thompson would be the PG of the future.
That future might be right now.
“Him getting better – him growing up as a ball player, the time he puts into it and learning and understanding and just being around those experienced guys; I think it was just time,” Martin explained of why he gave Thompson the start against the Rebels.
Thompson, who made his third start of the season, played perhaps his best game in Tennessee’s convincing 86-70 win over Ole Miss on Wednesday night. His seven points don’t jump off the stat sheet, but his seven assists showed how important he was to the offense. And his pair of turnovers were negated by a couple of steals that he got on the defensive end in addition to two rebounds.
He also held his own against Ole Miss point guard Jarvis Summers, who was held under his season scoring average, thanks in part to Thompson’s D.
"I thought he did good, I just told him he has to continue to improve defensively, moving his feet, staying in his stance from start to finish,” said Martin after the Ole Miss game. “That position is a tough position at the point guard. You are going against Jarvis Summers and Saturday you have [Alabama’s] Trevor Releford, so it doesn't get any easier at that position.
“I thought he did a solid job. But he’s a guy that spends a lot of time in the gym getting better."
The Vols, coming off a lethargic effort in a loss at Florida, seemed to be energized by Thompson’s presence in the starting lineup. His vision and willingness to push the ball helped UT jump out to a 13-4 edge in the opening minutes and a 41-29 advantage by halftime.
"We definitely pushed the ball more,” said forward Jarnell Stokes when asked about Thompson getting the start. “I think from starting off the game we took care of the ball and throughout the game we started making minor mistakes, so we started to slow it down. That was Ole Miss' game plan to make us slow the ball down, get in a zone, and force us to make shots and we did that today."
Thompson, who, despite some foul trouble early in the second half, still logged 23 minutes, seemed to play with starters’ confidence against the Rebels. Though he is and will probably continue to be a pass-first point guard, he scored his second highest total of the year and equaled his highest shot count.
That was in addition to his normal pin-point passes that have teammates admitting that they have to keep their head on a swivel to avoid being embarrassed.
"I felt like tonight I was a lot more aggressive and actually looking to score and find my shots and try to shoot them,” Thompson, the son of former college basketball coach Lonnie Thompson, said. “The biggest adjustment for me – physicality and just basically being more aggressive on offense and defense. Looking more to shoot and getting gaps and finding my teammates."
And Thompson’s emergence doesn’t necessarily diminish Barton’s potential to help the team. He still logged 17 minutes last night and can provide backup minutes at the point or at shooting guard. He’s in a mild shooting slump right now, but Tennessee will still need Barton, one of the few players with NCAA tournament experience on the roster, down the stretch as the Vols looking to return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2011.
“They're both great players for us,” said guard Jordan McRae. “They push the ball well, so having them out there is good for us."
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga