Tennessee basketball's freshmen looking to earn minutes on defense
KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE - NOVEMBER 30: Tobe Awaka #11 of the Tennessee Volunteers blocks a shot by Malachi Rhodes #23 of the McNeese State Cowboys in the second half at Thompson-Boling Arena on November 30, 2022 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

Make no mistake, when BJ Edwards checks in for the closing minutes of a lopsided Tennessee basketball game, the freshman point guard is going to score the basketball.

He had five points in the final minute against Tennessee Tech. He had two points in two minutes against Butler. He had four points in four minutes last week against McNeese State.

The 6-foot-3, 188-pound hometown kid, out of Knoxville’s Catholic High School, has scored 11 points in all of 13 mop-up minutes.

There’s only one problem. Head coach Rick Barnes and his staff aren’t exactly focused on that end of the floor when Edwards, along with Tennessee freshman power forward Tobe Awaka, get their opportunities late in a game.

They’re focused on the attention paid by their rookies on defense.

“Those minutes,” Barnes said after the 76-40 win over McNeese Wednesday at Thompson-Boling Arena, “… we just kept talking about how valuable these minutes are right now. They better show us they can guard on the defensive end because we’re not concerned about not one of your offensive (possessions) right now.”

Vols in the middle of ‘a big week’ for freshmen looking for minutes

No. 13 Tennessee (6-1) hosts Alcorn State (3-5) on Sunday, scheduled for a 6 p.m. Eastern Time start in Knoxville. The game is not televised but can be streamed live online through ESPN+ or SEC Network+.

The Vols host Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday, in another game that should be another opportunity for the end of the bench.

“It’s a big week for those guys,” Barnes said.

But he already had his mind on one of the Edwards’ defensive possessions immediately after the McNeese game Wednesday.

“I told BJ that I thought he went in and really tried to play hard,” Barnes said, “other than the exception he had a chance to go make a play on a ball and he didn’t, gave up a basket.”

There was another possession that Awaka — the 6-foot-8, 250-pound big man that committed to the Vols in May and enrolled in June — let go to waste, too.

“He got in the last game,” Tennessee assistant coach Rod Clark said on Friday, “and got scored on in the first possession and Coach (Barnes) ripped him right out.”

The head coach had to send a message about their new reality.

“Those guys have to understand the standard has been set,” Clark said, “and it has been set by those older guys and that is great. But there is going to come a time where those older guys aren’t here and they will be responsible for setting that standard. They have to understand that guys are going to guard. That is what is going to happen at Tennessee.

“We tell guys that during recruiting. We tell guys that when they get on campus. They are going to guard. If they don’t, it is going to be really hard to play here.”

The numbers back up that statement.

Tennessee is ranked No. 1 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency according to The Vols have held five of their first seven opponents to 50 points or less to start the season, giving up just 53.1 per game.

“That comes from competing,” Clark said of the elite defensive standard, “and just having a will to win.”

Up Next: No. 13 Tennessee vs. Alcorn State, Sunday, 6 p.m. ET, SEC Network+

Awaka knows what Barnes is looking for and it’s nothing more than the details and the fundamentals on defense.

“I think he understands our offense will come,” Awaka said on Friday, “but just being disciplined on defense. Staying low, moving your feet, stuff like that. Playing without fouling. He’s definitely been on me about that. Just staying disciplined and not fouling and holding teams to less points.”

For Awaka that means playing with quicker feet, an area he feels like he’s progressing in.

“I’m not fouling as much during practice so that’s definitely been an improvement,” he said. “I think it’s just keep moving my feet … guys like ‘O’ (Olivier Nkamhoua) and Jonas (Aidoo) are quick footed even though they are big guys. Playing against guys faster, bigger and with quick feet has definitely helped.”

Getting as many opportunities as they can on game day will help, too. But it won’t happen if they’re not as locked in defensively as Edwards has been offensively.

“We want to see that they’re in tune with what we want to get done defensively right now,” Barnes said, “so I think these games are important for a lot of reasons. I think they’re important to see what type of consistency we can start developing as a team.”

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