KNOXVILLE — With what's left of his first season as Tennessee's basketball coach, Rick Barnes would like to see his three freshmen continue to develop.
Shembari Phillips, Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander all have shown flashes of promise in their first season with the Volunteers, but there's still progress for them to make before they become sophomores and, along with the redshirting Lamonte Turner, form the nucleus of Barnes' second Tennessee team.
"I told our young guys yesterday (that) they're not young anymore," Barnes said Monday. "They're closer to being sophomores than they are freshmen. And nowadays sophomores are sometimes considered pretty old with all the people that leave early and all that."
True freshmen have accounted for 40 percent of Tennessee's scoring in the past three games with senior and leading scorer Kevin Punter Jr. sidelined, and Saturday against Arkansas was the first time since 2007 the Vols started a lineup with three true freshmen.
Those three will stick in the starting lineup for tonight's game at Vanderbilt.
"I think they've gotten better," Barnes said, "but I still think there's another step that each one has to take."
Phillips, Schofield and Alexander all have had bouts with inconsistency this season.
Alexander didn't even play in the Southeastern Conference opener at Auburn, and he'd played more than 11 minutes just twice when he earned a starting spot with his 11-rebound, six-block performance at TCU on Jan. 30.
Schofield didn't play in two games in November, then scored 55 points in his first three SEC games. After losing his starting spot and playing just seven minutes in the loss at Missouri, Schofield appears to be on another upswing. He had 15 points and nine rebounds against the Razorbacks.
During one preseason practice, Barnes wouldn't let Phillips shoot or even dribble, but the guard scored in double figures in five of his last seven games. The coach thought he took a step back against Arkansas, however, by letting success impact his preparation.
"Young guys still have a tendency (to feel too good) if they score a basket or get a dunk here or there or make a 3 — because that's what fans identify with — but coaches identify all the things within the game that help you win," Barnes said. "The next step is them identifying with that and making it important to themselves.
"Kyle is the one guy that's embraced that side of it, because in his mind he knows he can do that. Kyle doesn't have the confidence yet to feel like he's going to score a lot. Admiral, on the other hand, he and Shembari both still put their identity in what they do on the offensive end, and they need to flip that."
Barnes likes how hard his freshmen prepare. He said it's "clockwork" that Turner, Alexander and Schofield, along with walk-ons Lucas Campbell and Brad Woodson, will stay long after practice to get more work. The coach hopes Phillips will join them more regularly.
"That's what we want to see, and going forward that's going to be a great help for us when this new group comes in," Barnes said. "They'll understand there's an expectation of hard work that's in place."
Tennessee is having to rely more on freshmen than the coaches expected coming into the season, but the coaches also were expecting more consistency from upperclassmen such as Devon Baulkman, Derek Reese and Robert Hubbs III.
"When we first got here, it was time to do it, and that's one of the things we emphasize with each other," Schofield said after the Arkansas game. "We stay in the same room with each other. We're closer than anybody on the team with each other. One of the things we emphasize is we've got to be ready when our number is called.
"Tonight we all made the start, and I think we did pretty good — Kyle getting those blocks, Shembari making plays on offense and defending pretty well and me being aggressive and getting rebounds. As a freshman unit, we're building upon something for next year, but right now we've got to finish out the season strong."
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