Freshman Darius Thompson solid in start for UT Vols

Freshman Darius Thompson solid in start for UT Vols

January 31st, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee guard Darius Thompson (15) shoots a layup past Mississippi forward Sebastian Saiz (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday in Knoxville.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Darius Thompson hardly ever changes his demeanor.

His role for Tennessee's basketball team, though, certainly changed Wednesday night.

Coach Cuonzo Martin inserted the true freshman point guard into the starting lineup in place of Memphis transfer Antonio Barton, and Thompson responded with seven points, seven assists and only one turnover in 23 minutes of Tennessee's 86-70 home win against Ole Miss.

The skinny, 6-foot-5 Murfreesboro Blackman High School graduate found out during Tuesday's practice that he would make his third start of the season the following night.

"It was nothing new, just going out there and playing my game," Thompson said after the game, but acknowledging he was less "laid back" than usual. "I just felt like I played more aggressive than I have been playing."

Thompson, a three-star recruit Tennessee added during the late signing period, started his first collegiate game at Xavier when Barton was coming off a preseason leg injury, and he started against Division II Tusculum College earlier this month when Josh Richardson was late to the game.

Entering the Ole Miss game, Thompson was averaging nearly 17 minutes per game, and while his 47 assists trailed only Jordan McRae's 51 for team-high honors, the 2013 Class AAA Mr. Basketball finalist was averaging less than three points per game and shooting 40 percent from the field and 18 percent (4-of-22) from 3-point range.

Yet Barton is in the middle of another cold spell and was 3-of-20 shooting in the Vols' last three games, and after Florida crushed Tennessee by 26 on Saturday, Martin decided to make a change.

"It was time," the coach said. "He has the tools. A lot of times he goes in games [when] the lineups, you've got young guys, you've got inexperienced guys, guys that don't play a lot. But out the gates, with older guys and decision-making, it put those guys in position to be successful."

Tennessee's bench has remained in flux since five-star freshman Robert Hubbs III was sidelined with a recurring shoulder injury, but Thompson has maintained his minutes, and Armani Moore, the 6-5 wing who had four rebounds, three assists and three blocks in 21 minutes Wednesday night, has carved out his role lately.

Against Ole Miss, Thompson set up forwards Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon for two inside baskets apiece and assisted on two McRae 3s during Tennessee's game-clinching 18-4 run in the second half.

All seven of the freshman's points came before halftime, including an early layup on the break and a 3-pointer from the wing. He added two more steals to his team lead in that category.

"I thought he did good," Martin said. "I just told him he has to continue to improve defensively -- moving his feet, staying in his stance from start to finish, because that position is a tough position. It doesn't get any easier at that position, but I thought he did a solid job.

"Again, he's a guy that spends a lot of time in the gym getting better."

Tennessee's coaching staff has liked Thompson's intelligence and feel for the game since the preseason, and the choice to start him took a good first step. Now it's up to Thompson to run with it.

"The coaches have been telling me all season long, 'Darius, be aggressive. Play how you played in high school. Don't think about too much,'" he said. "I just did that today."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.