Veteran James eager to get minutes back up for Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior guard Josiah-Jordan James is averaging 9.0 points per game since returning from a month-long absence.

This senior season for Josiah-Jordan James has not gone to plan.

Tennessee is 16 games into its basketball schedule, and the 6-foot-6, 224-pounder from Charleston, South Carolina, has played in only eight of them. James had offseason knee surgery and was available for the first three games, but he played in only two of the next 10 before returning for all three contests this month.

On Saturday afternoon, James and the No. 5 Volunteers (14-2, 4-0 SEC) will host longtime rival Kentucky (10-6, 1-3).

"I feel great, and I don't feel like there are any setbacks," James told reporters Thursday. "We're definitely trending upwards right now, and I wouldn't say that my knee is an issue at all. I'm just trying to get my minutes back up and get back into game shape.

"That can take a while sometimes, but my body feels great."

James averaged at least 27 minutes a game in each of his first three seasons but hasn't played more than 18 minutes since November, logging 17 against Mississippi State on Jan. 3, 17 against South Carolina last Saturday and 16 against Vanderbilt this past Tuesday. Yet his return has coincided with three solid offensive performances, as Tennessee has averaged 83.0 points.

Despite playing less than half of each game, James averaged 9.0 points against the Bulldogs, Gamecocks and Commodores.

"Josiah is a game-changer," Vols freshman forward Julian Phillips said. "When he's in, we can switch up the lineup, and it makes us a lot more dangerous, because people have to match up to what we do. Having him back and him playing as well as he is has been great for our team."

James has been known for his versatility during his four seasons in Knoxville, and that includes his talents on the defensive end. He led last season's Vols in rebounding 11 times, in blocks 10 times and in steals nine times.

It's the defensive aspect to his game that could be needed most against Kentucky and 6-9, 260-pound senior forward Oscar Tshiebwe.

"It will have to be as a group," James said. "It will not be just one person. They like to get him the ball in isolation, so we can't leave our post guys or whoever's guarding him on an island.

"We just have to play team defense against him and try to contain him."

Odds and ends

Tennessee is 19-1 against Southeastern Conference opposition since losing 107-79 at Kentucky last January. ... The Vols continue to lead the nation in field-goal defense (33.5%) and 3-point-goal defense (20.9%). ... Tennessee is No. 2 in the NET rankings, while Kentucky is No. 63. ... The Wildcats are 158-77 all-time against Tennessee, which includes a 54-52 mark in Knoxville.

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