Punter aims to 'step it up' for UT basketball

Tennessee guard Kevin Punter, left, reacts to a foul call during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas on Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, in Fayetteville, Ark. AP Photo/Gareth Patterson)

KNOXVILLE - Basketball has taken Kevin Punter from the Bronx to Tennessee, with stops at a North Carolina prep school and a Missouri junior college in between.

Where the game takes Punter beyond his final season in Knoxville probably depends on what he does during his senior year with the Volunteers.

Tennessee's third-leading scorer in his debut season in 2014-15, Punter knows he'll need to produce for the undermanned Vols - who must replace their best player, Miami Heat draft pick Josh Richardson - and new coach Rick Barnes.

"Individually I feel like I had a solid season, but this year I'm definitely going to step it up a notch from what I did last year," Punter said before a Rocky Top League game last month. "That's why I've been in the gym so much and just trying to stay focused.

"It goes by fast. It goes by real fast," he added. "From the high school days to now, I feel like it's faster that time moves, but I don't really think about that. I'm just focusing on the upcoming season."

The 6-foot-3 Punter started all but one game for the Vols last season after transferring from State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Mo., and averaged 10.3 points. He was second on the team in steals (1.6 per game) and minutes played (31.0 per game). Punter and Devon Baulkman are Tennessee's two best returning 3-point shooters from last season, with Punter making 43 of 122 attempts (.352 percent) from behind the arc and Baulkman 26 of 68 (.382).

Growing up in New York, Punter spent hours playing basketball during his childhood, and he carried a gym-rat reputation to Tennessee when he arrived last summer. If he's got some free time from workouts and classes, Punter is probably working on his shot inside Pratt Pavilion. It's just who he is.

That work ethic quickly caught the eye of his new coach.

"No one's put more time in the gym this summer than Kevin. Nobody. And it's not even close," Barnes said. "When you're a senior and you realize you've got one year left and basketball's something that you really love, you want it to be a part of your future."

Barnes would like for that approach to spread among the team.

"(Punter's) work ethic, the way he's handled things, I told Shembari (Phillips) today, I said, 'If you're smart, you'll hitch your wagon to Kevin, and every time he's in here you should want to be with him,'" Barnes said. "When you've got a guy that's willing to put that much time in and show that much passion, that's something you want to develop in your program, and you hope it's handed down through the years."

It's always been Punter's nature to be a scorer. In three of his four seasons prior to coming to Tennessee, he averaged 20 or more points. During his transitional season to major college basketball, Punter's best scoring games were two 18-point performances and a pair of 17-point games.

In this summer's Rocky Top League, Punter cruised to the scoring title with a 43.7-point scoring average in six games, pouring in a league-record 76 points in his final game. He also often looked a step quicker and more aggressive, though the defense-free nature of the league tends to have that effect on most players.

Punter conceded he'll have to play some point guard for the Vols this season given the team's void at the position, but if he's able to find his scoring touch - whether it's with drives and trips to the free-throw line or with his 3-point stroke - Barnes won't mind putting the ball in Punter's hands when Tennessee needs offense.

"It's been easier," Punter said of the transition from ex-Vols coach Donnie Tyndall to Barnes. "He allows you, not that Tyndall didn't, to play more, be more free and things like that. Tyndall was a great coach, and things happen. Barnes is our coach now, and we're just trying to move on and get better every day."

It's clear the former Texas coach likes what he's seen so far from one of his three seniors.

"We started talking to him about tweaking some things with his shot," Barnes said. "It's hard to do that when you've done things your whole life a certain way. I'm not sure I've coached someone - I have, but not many - that have embraced it the way he has. It's a very frustrating thing to change a shot anyway.

"This morning when he was in there, he was working at it. He's had to deal with the frustration, because it's tough to do that. He's been a real champ, pro the way he's gone about it."

Told his new coach was bragging on him, Punter smiled and acknowledged that what might be extra work for some was part of his routine.

"I've always been," he said, "that type of player."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

photo Tennessee guard Kevin Punter (0) plays against Vanderbilt guard Wade Baldwin IV (4) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee won in overtime 76-73. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)