Key finding various ways to impact games for No. 4 Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior guard Tyreke Key, a graduate transfer from Indiana State, collected 10 points and seven rebounds during Saturday’s 77-56 win at LSU.

Perhaps more hindsight was needed in determining how senior guard Tyreke Key would fit in with this season's Tennessee Volunteers.

After all, the graduate transfer from Indiana State quickly established a really high bar.

The 6-foot-2, 211-pounder racked up 26 points on 8-of-12 shooting that included four 3-pointers during Tennessee's 99-80 surprise walloping of Gonzaga at an exhibition in the Dallas suburb of Frisco on Oct. 28. Key poured in 17 and 15 points when the season opened with a win over Tennessee Tech and a loss to Colorado, but his six appearances in Southeastern Conference contests have yielded a much more modest 6.2-point average.

"I think I can impact a game in other ways besides scoring," Key told reporters Monday afternoon as the Vols prepared for Wednesday night's game against visiting Georgia. "My rebounding can impact a game. Whatever the role, I'm here to do it, and I'm going to do it to the best of my abilities."

Key returned to his home state -- he prepped at Clay County High in Celina -- after amassing 1,650 career points at Indiana State, which ranked sixth in Sycamores history. His bursting out of the gate this past autumn certainly could be viewed as unexpected, given that he missed the entire 2021-22 season at ISU after undergoing shoulder surgery in November 2021.

Then there is simply the matter of how he would mesh on a Tennessee roster containing sophomore Zakai Zeigler running the point and with the versatility of senior guards Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi.

"I think Tyreke has definitely added to his game in a lot of ways," coach Rick Barnes said. "We've put him in some situations this year that he's never been in, and he's embraced them. He's never backed down from any of it. We're fortunate we were able to get him, because he's had a big impact on our program."

Key has played in 18 of 19 games for the 16-3 Vols, who vaulted from No. 9 to No. 4 behind Purdue, Alabama and Houston in Monday's latest Associated Press poll, and has earned 15 starts. He is averaging 9.2 points and 2.9 rebounds per game while also tallying 29 assists and 14 steals.

His first double-digit scoring game in SEC play occurred Saturday, when his 10 points helped the Vols rout LSU 77-56. Key connected on 3-pointers late in the first half to help Tennessee stretch a 29-20 lead to 37-20, and he also collected seven rebounds and a steal in playing 18 turnover-free minutes.

"Just like Zakai, he's a really good guard who can find his shot, and that's what we need," James said after the win in Baton Rouge. "We need players who are aggressive and willing to score. Tyreke can score with the best of them, and his aggressiveness helps us out a lot."

Said Key: "I was trying to create a spark, and I crashed the glass. I got a couple of rebounds and never looked back."


Phillips honored

Tennessee forward Julian Phillips was named Monday as the SEC freshman of the week. The 6-8, 198-pounder from Blythewood, South Carolina, averaged 14.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in wins at Mississippi State and at LSU, and he made 4-of-7 attempts (57.1%) from 3-point range.


Odds and ends

The Vols hold a commanding 98-61 series advantage against Georgia, which includes a 50-15 mark in Knoxville. ... This is the lone scheduled meeting between the Vols and Bulldogs. ... Tennessee athletic director Danny White is the younger brother of Georgia coach Mike White. ... Georgia's White was 2-8 against Tennessee during his seven seasons as Florida's coach, which included an 0-6 mark inside Thompson-Boling Arena. ... The Vols have not allowed an opponent to reach 70 points since Arizona tallied 75 on Dec.17.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.