Vols confident Kennedy Chandler is ready for this weekend's spotlight

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee freshman point guard Kennedy Chandler is leading the team in scoring, assists and shooting percentage entering Saturday's challenge against No. 5 Villanova.

His teammates love him because he has seemed nearly perfect. He is loved by his coach because he is far from perfect but works hard to head in that direction.

He, of course, is University of Tennessee five-star freshman point guard Kennedy Chandler, who leads the No. 17 Volunteers in a slew of categories heading into Saturday afternoon's showdown against No. 5 Villanova at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament in Uncasville, Connecticut.

"It's so much fun playing with him," senior guard Victor Bailey Jr. said. "As you can see, he draws a lot of attention with just how dynamic he is and how quick and fast he is. He makes it a lot easier on us just to spot up and find our shots. Hopefully we can knock some more shots down for him."

Chandler has bypassed easing into a college career, erupting instead to average 18 points, five assists and three rebounds in opening routs of UT Martin and East Tennessee State University. He is Tennessee's leading scorer and hasn't missed much, shooting 13-of-19 from the floor (68.4%) and a staggering 6-of-7 from 3-point range (85.7%).

The 6-foot, 171-pounder from Memphis made all four of his 3-point attempts in the 90-62 drubbing of UT Martin and scored all 16 of his points during the first half of the 94-62 thrashing of ETSU, but Tennessee seventh-year coach Rick Barnes insists that Chandler endeared himself to the rest of the roster long before his first two performances.

"He has great respect for his teammates," Barnes said. "He really believes in his teammates. There is not any sense of entitlement on his part in any way, shape or form. He's competitive, but he wants to see everybody do well. He's learning a lot, and he's got so much more that he can give. He will end up making a lot of fix-it plays on the offensive end, and I think he can do the same thing on the defensive end.

"He wasn't very good against Martin defensively, but he's been tremendous in the days since trying to work on the things that we've asked him to do. He's just very unselfish, and his teammates know that it's not about him and that he's never made it about him."

ETSU coach and former Vols assistant Desmond Oliver was a bit more direct in his assessment of Chandler: "He reminds me of a young Kyrie Irving. There was no one on the court for us who could slow him down."

Chandler gives Tennessee a true point guard it never possessed during last season's 18-9 run to an NCAA tournament that ended abruptly for the Vols with a 70-56 loss to Oregon State. What folks weren't counting on was his accuracy, though two games admittedly isn't the largest sample size.

"When we saw Kennedy years ago and we started talking to him, we knew and he knew that he had to get better as a shooter," Barnes said. "This was when he was in ninth or 10th grade, and we've watched how hard he's worked at that over the years. That's not what his game is based on, because he's more of an assist-to-turnover guy and not being out to prove to people that he can shoot the ball.

"I don't know if he's had any shots that have been outside of his rhythm or outside of his comfort zone, which is a great thing. People will decide how they're going to have to play him, and that's where I think he's just going to continue to grow as a player."

Villanova is 2-1 this season, with its setback an 86-77 overtime thriller at No. 2 UCLA. The Wildcats have one of the nation's most proven guard tandems, with graduate Collin Gillespie (6-3, 195) and junior Justin Moore (6-4, 210) combining for roughly 27 points and six assists per game last season.

It's an early spotlight and an early opportunity for Chandler, who played at Briarcrest Christian before competing his senior season at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas, and his teammates are displaying no doubts in their youthful star.

"Kennedy is very focused and very fast and very under control for the speed that he plays at," junior forward Olivier Nkamhoua said. "He's great. He gets everybody open shots. He's able to move the ball well, and when people can't stop him from getting to his spots, that's very good for our team.

"He's shifty. He can finish. He can shoot. Really, he's a threat in every single way."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.