KNOXVILLE - The Tennessee men's basketball team's lone scholarship senior hasn't had a final season to remember.
But Ryan Childress hasn't surrendered the season. He's battled back from knee surgery and spent the past few weeks anchoring the scout team, displaying the same nasty streak that's produced 291 points, 236 rebounds and 117 personal fouls in 89 career games.
Childress didn't envision his career heading this way in spring 2007, when his memorable NCAA tournament performance capped a solid sophomore season with 5.6 points, four rebounds and nearly 38 percent shooting from the 3-point line in nearly 16 minutes per game.
The 6-foot-9 player's path changed course last season with star Tyler Smith's arrival, though. His playing fell below 10 minutes per game - he hoped, if naively, for an even split with Smith - and his point production slashed by more than 50 percent.
Matters got worse in May, when Childress dislocated his knee in a pickup game. It wasn't just any dislocation, either. His kneecap moved so much that it chipped off a portion of his thigh bone, and that revelation extended the rehabilitation process. Meanwhile, several younger post players emerged to bolster UT's formidable Smith-Wayne Chism frontcourt combination, and the Volunteers shrank their double-digit rotation after slowing tempo to match their new look.
Childress returned to practice after the Jan. 3 loss at Kansas, but he hasn't played.
That's left me wondering whether a redshirt season was possible.
I wouldn't say it's safe to assume that Smith will forgo his senior season and enter the NBA draft, but I'm not the only one close to the program who thinks that will happen (Smith hasn't commented on the record, but he came close to leaving last season).
If Smith goes - and who would blame him? - UT's frontcourt future would seem OK with rising senior Chism, rising junior Brian Williams, rising sophomore Emmanuel Negedu, rising redshirt freshman Phillip Jurick from East Ridge and highly touted fall signee Kenny Hall from the Atlanta area.
But what if Chism enters the draft? I'm not sure that will happen, but don't think Chism's improvements have gone unnoticed by NBA scouts. I sit next to them at games, and I watch them scribble in their notebooks when he has those sterling "Good Wayne" moments - which happen with much more frequency than head-scratching "Bad Wayne" moments these days.
Would it be bad to have Childress back, anyway? A versatile, tough, 6-9 big man who can step out and shoot is an extremely valuable commodity in coach Bruce Pearl's system, and Childress has produced on big stages in his career.
As for his maturity ... he married East Tennessean Lauren Clabough on July 26, exactly six months after proposing in Thompson-Boling Arena moments after UT's victory over Georgia.
If the Vols have an extra scholarship available for next season - and it looks like they will - wouldn't Childress be an asset next season? A capable role player, at least?
I spoke with Childress after Monday night's practice, and he said he hadn't really thought about redshirting. He said he hasn't spoken with coaches about it, either. Childress has typically been a straight-shooter since I've been on the beat, so I'm inclined to believe him.
But isn't it something to at least consider?
I've been proven wrong enough times and cashed enough measly sportswriter paychecks to know I'm not college-coaching material. But the longer Childress goes without playing, the more I wonder whether a redshirt might be best for all sides involved.
At the very least, practices always have more intensity when Childress is out there. Teammates often hate practicing against his scrappiness, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing.
Regardless, here is a transcript from the Childress interview. There should be an audio link somewhere on the page, too.
Q: What was the rough timeline with your injury and rehab process?
CHILDRESS: "I had a dislocated kneecap at the end of May. I had surgery at the beginning of June, and what happened was my kneecap came over and chipped off some of my thigh bone, and they had to get in there and do the surgery for that. The rehab took a little bit longer than we expected, and the surgery was a little bit more detailed than we thought it would be. It took a little bit longer than we hoped to come back."
Q: How does your knee feel? Is it holding up in practice? It looks OK out there.
CHILDRESS: "The knee's feeling great, and everything's going well in the court - in the right direction for where I want to be. I'm happy with my progress. I'm happy with where I'm at right now. I'm happy, conditioning-wise. I think everything's right where I need it to be."
Q: Do you plan to help this season, considering there are only 12 games left in the regular season?
CHILDRESS: "My plan has never had any intention of not being able to come back and help the team. I've always had the intention of rehabbing as hard as I could. Unfortunately, that took a little bit longer due to the surgery, but I feel like I've got myself back in condition, and my knee feels good enough to help this team these next 12 games. I can't dictate what happens. I've just got to stay ready and, if my number's called, I've got to go in there and do what I can do. But if it's not, I've just got to do the best I can in practice, and leave it all out there and get these guys better and let that be my role and execute it to the best of my ability."
Q: Don't you have a redshirt season available?
CHILDRESS: "Yes, but my intention was to rehab and come back and help this team as best I could. I thought I'd be back a lot earlier than I have been, but I very much intend to help the team. Like I said, I can't control if my number is called or not, but I fully intend to come back and help this team. I haven't even considered a redshirt year."
Q: But there are just 12 games left this season, and the rotation seems pretty set. Wouldn't you even consider it?
CHILDRESS: "I'd have to look into it. I haven't played in any games as of yet, and I'm sure that would still be a possibility. But like I said, I didn't intend (to redshirt). I came back (to practice) after the Kansas game, and I fully expected to have half the season left and was ready to play. Just like many other players all over the country who come back from injuries ... who come back with half the season left, I thought I could do it like that my senior year. I had the experience, and I felt like I could come back and help the team out, because we have a team that could use some seniors."
Q: Does being married change anything for you - for instance, a possible decision to come back next season?
CHILDRESS: "No. It doesn't change anything. My wife supports me 100 percent in everything that I want to do, whether that be continuing to play after I'm done here or playing this year or redshirting, she's behind me 100 percent, as well as my family. I feel like the fans are, too, in whatever I choose to do. I just feel like right now I want to come back this year and help the team out as much as I can."
Q: What could your knee handle right now, in a regular game situation?
CHILDRESS: "I feel like I'm in plenty good enough condition to help the team in the way I would probably be called upon. I don't think I'm going to be called in there to play 20 minutes, but I haven't done that my whole four years here, and I obvious wouldn't do it that way this far into the season. For the minutes I'd be playing, and where my body feels, conditioning-wise, I can go out there and play for 20 minutes, five minutes, around the clock, whatever it is, I feel like I'd be in plenty good enough condition."
Q: What about being called to hit some shots? You've had your moments here as a perimeter shooter, and this team is struggling to hit anything outside the paint these days.
CHILDRESS: "I'm not sure if that's in the game plan (laughter). But for me, personally, I feel like I can shoot the ball. I feel like I've demonstrated that throughout my career here, that I have the ability to have the touch from the outside. We're looking to find some 3-point shooters and stuff like that, but I'm not sure if I'll be somebody in the mix or consideration. I always feel like I can hit open shots when they're given to me, though. I don't know. I can't make those decisions (laughter). I'm just a player."
Q: How much have you spoken with coaches about the big picture with your situation? Have you at all, or are you just practicing day-to-day right now?
CHILDRESS: "I'm basically just practicing. I talk with the trainers, and they talk with Coach Pearl and stuff like that, but I've just really been practicing and trying to show them what I can do, and let that kind of do the talking. We haven't really had much consideration about any of that. We talked a lot about the surgery and stuff like that, and obviously (Pearl) has been part of the rehab and stuff like that. But right now, I think this is just a point in the season where he's kind of got his rotation where he wants it. Honestly, this time of year, most coaches are kind of trimming down their rotations, not adding people to them. I know I'm in a tough spot, and I fully understand that, but all we're really doing is practicing. We're not talking at great length about anything."
Q: So basically, your role is just to make the best of a tough situation?
CHILDRESS: "Yeah. I tell you, my role is just to practice as hard as I can every day, and leave it all out there. I can't make any decisions, but I can do the best I can. And then whatever's done with that, I'll have to accept. It's about the team winning. This is my senior year, and that's what it's all about - the team."