INDIANAPOLIS — Tennessee made its NCAA tournament run from the "First Four" in Dayton to the Sweet 16 here despite getting only 19 points from its bench in three games.
While that's likely due more to efficient starters than an ineffective bench, the Volunteers have settled on a consistent eight-man rotation and seen their reserves settle comfortably into their roles heading into tonight's Midwest Region semifinal against Michigan.
Unlike earlier in the season, Tennessee seems it knows what it will get from point guard Darius Thompson, swingman Armani Moore and forward Derek Reese when they enter the game.
"Each of us know that we have to come out with energy and enthusiasm," Reese said in Tennessee's locker room following Thursday's shootaround at Lucas Oil Stadium. "What I do is before every game, I talk to Armani and Darius and say, 'We've got to come out with energy and enthusiasm every time.' We can't have a letdown when we get in.
"We've got to give our starters breaks and some time to rest so they can get back and play as hard as they can. Our role is to go out there and play 'D.' Really, that's the main focus. Scoring will help us and add even more of a threat, but really our main focus is to go out there and play defense and play hard."
No Tennessee reserve has played more than the 19 minutes Thompson got against Massaschusetts, and none of the trio even scored in the win against Mercer.
Yet Moore picked up four points and three assists in 14 minutes against Iowa, and Thompson converted a three-point play in the first half and chipped in three helpers against UMass.
More importantly, though, each knows what he needs to stick when he gets into the game.
"We're pretty comfortable, but at the same time it's a whole lot of pressure on us, because once you go into the game, you're not trying to have any breakdowns," Moore said. "You're trying to stay mentally focused, especially on defense. I know I have done it several times coming into a game and actually have a defensive breakdown instantly because I'm not locked in all the way like I should be."
For Thompson, the key is running the point offensively, and while he struggles defensively against smaller guards, his instincts and long arms help him deflect passes and create turnovers.
The 6-foot-5 Moore is an athletic freak who energizes the Vols with his ability to block shots emphatically, and while his 3-point shot is very much a work in progress, he has improved his driving ability.
Reese's focus is making sure there's no rebounding dropoff when Jeronne Maymon needs a break, and he occasionally hits an outside shot.
"I feel like our role is pretty big coming off the bench," Moore said. "We know that we've got to come in the game and actually bring something to help out our starters. I feel like everybody's been doing a pretty good job of bringing something to the table."
Against a Michigan team that uses a four-guard lineup, Moore and Reese could see a bump in the 22 minutes they've combined to average in the NCAA tournament, and all three will be tested defensively when they're in the game.
"When we come in, it's just keep the energy up," Thompson said. "The starters are going to bring the energy. When we get in there, we just try to produce and keep the energy up."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...