KNOXVILLE - If Tennessee's basketball Volunteers are to reach their goals this season, they will need to rely on their veterans to get them there.
But three freshmen are serving as complementary pieces early this season.
Darius Thompson, A.J. Davis and Robert Hubbs III were all on the floor together when Tennessee made a spurt in the first half of last Saturday's 82-63 rout of Wake Forest in the Vols' final game of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, and the three first-year players have carved out roles in coach Cuonzo Martin's eight-man rotation.
"I really don't notice until after the game," Thompson said when asked if he notices when all three freshmen are on the floor together. "We're all talking and we'll be like, 'Y'all know we were all out there together?' I just think about it like, 'Yeah, I guess we were.'"
The Demon Deacons led 7-6 when Thompson, the point guard from Murfreesboro, and A.J. Davis, the son of former NBA All-Star Antonio Davis and the first big man off Tennessee's bench, entered the game. Hubbs, who was a five-star recruit, entered two minutes later.
The Vols stretched their lead from 13-10 to 22-12 with all three freshmen on the floor. Davis scored a layup after a steal and added a couple of good defensive possessions, Hubbs made a 3-pointer and Thompson hit a 3 and a driving layup for five of his 11 first-half points.
"I think Coach knows that we love playing with each other," the 6-foot-9 Davis said. "We have a really good chemistry together just because we're always working out together, always doing everything together. I think it just kind of works out like that. We just have good chemistry together."
Martin said the confidence has been the biggest key to the early-season development for the freshmen.
"The more you play, the [more] confidence you get," the coach said. "It gets tougher for those guys as we go with some of the opponents coming up. Guys are freshmen coming in and playing college basketball, so it's not a case of, 'I'm going to wait two years to play.' You've got to be ready to play. We spend a lot of time practicing.
"They have experienced guys around them, so it helps in a lot of ways, but again, it's just the confidence of it."
Thompson finished the Wake Forest game with a career-high 16 points and made all nine of his free throws, and Hubbs, a big-time scorer at Dyer County High School in West Tennessee, is chipping in six points per game this season.
"I think Darius has done a great job of really running the team as he continues to grow," Martin said. "He's making his free throws. ... He knows how to run the offense and gets the ball where it needs to go.
"Robert's a a guy that scores the ball, and we expect Robert to be a good two-way player because I think Robert can also be a great defender.
Davis perhaps has had the biggest adjustment. He's essentially a guard playing forward for now, and he's having to match his wiry frame, long arms and inexperience against bigger players down low. Davis has picked up three fouls in three of seven games this season, though he's averaging just 12 minutes per game.
"It's definitely different to me, especially coming from high school, where I was handling the ball a lot more and doing a lot more guard things," he said. "I just do whatever Coach asks me to do. If he wants me to go play point guard tomorrow, I'm going to try to transition and do that and guard points.
"Everybody has to adjust. Robert had to adjust. Darius had to adjust. We all have to adjust. That's just part of it. I've just got to keep learning and keep working at it, and I'll be fine."
The freshmen are the only nonstarters averaging double-digit minutes for the Vols, who host Tennessee Tech at noon Saturday.
"That's just a good sign, when you can have three freshmen on the court at the same time and not on the sideline just panicking of what they're going to do," leading scorer Jordan McRae said. "I think there's going to be plenty of times where you'll see that lineup in. They're all just doing their job."
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