Lack of height has Tennessee relying on small-ball lineup
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee will be looking up at most of its opponents the rest of the season, no matter where the Volunteers are in the Southeastern Conference standings.
It has nothing to do with their record. It has more to do with their size, or lack thereof.
In its last four games, Tennessee (9-8, 2-3 SEC) hasn't started anyone taller than 6-foot-5. If the Vols use that same lineup Wednesday, it could provide a stark contrast when they host Vanderbilt (10-7, 2-3), which has three 7-footers on its roster.
This represents a new situation for Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, but believes small-ball has potential benefits.
''I always coached big teams at Texas,'' said Barnes, in his first season at Tennessee after 17 years with Texas. ''We had big teams, and we never enjoyed playing against smaller teams that could stretch the floor.''
Barnes doesn't have many other options.
The only three Tennessee players taller than 6-5 are Kyle Alexander (6-9), Ray Kasongo (6-8) and Derek Reese (6-7). By contrast, Vanderbilt starts the 7-1 Luke Kornet and 7-footer Damian Jones, with 7-footer Josh Henderson coming off the bench.
Alexander and Kasongo are Division I newcomers still getting accustomed to SEC basketball. Reese has made 11 starts, but he's filled a reserve role lately.
Tennessee instead has used a starting lineup that includes Admiral Schofield (6-5), Devon Baulkman (6-4), Armani Moore (6-4), Robert Hubbs III (6-4) and Kevin Punter Jr. (6-2). When an ankle injury prevented Moore from playing Saturday in an 80-75 victory at Mississippi State, 6-1 guard Detrick Mostella replaced him in the starting lineup.
''I'd rather play against a big team that likes to pound it inside to the post,'' Barnes said. ''I think you can defend that a little bit easier than a team that spreads you out and moves the ball, and can shoot it, and get big guys away from the basket. A lot of big players don't enjoy being that far away from the basket. They don't like being moved around very much.''
Mostella said the small lineup provides plenty of opportunities – at least on one end of the floor.
''It's fun on offense because the defense can't really do anything about it,'' Mostella said. ''If you've got 6-10 and 6-11 (players) guarding a 6-5 (player), we're going to just blow past you. When you help out, it's going to be an open shot for one of our teammates.''
But the smaller lineup also causes Tennessee plenty of rebounding and defensive problems.
Tennessee ranks 13th out of 14 SEC teams in scoring defense (76.4), ninth in field-goal percentage defense (.423) and 12tb in rebound margin (minus-1.5). Remarkably, the undersized Vols average 5.5 blocked shots per game to rank second in the SEC and 18th among all Division I teams.
There's no guarantee Tennessee will continue with this starting lineup. In the Mississippi State game, the 6-7 Reese came off the bench and played 32 minutes. Schofield started but played just 16 minutes. After averaging 18.3 points in Tennessee's first three SEC matchups, Schofield has totaled two points over his last two games.
But the Vols have used this lineup often enough to believe they can compete with it, even as they realize the inherent risks that come with starting nobody taller than 6-5.
''I just wish we were two inches taller per guy,'' Barnes said. ''I've always said I'd love a team that was 6-7 guys across the board that could play every position. Those are fun teams to coach. And this is a fun team to coach, even though we aren't real big.''