Tennessee basketball prepares for preseason opener

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (UT Release) - With its exhibition opener set to tipoff Saturday afternoon, the Tennessee basketball team spent a good portion of Thursday’s practice focusing on its transition game.

The role of the point guard is critical to a team’s transition execution, but senior Antonio Barton – who figured to enter the season as UT’s starter at the point – was limited to riding a stationary bike Thursday. The Baltimore, Md., native suffered a left leg injury in practice last Friday and has not practiced since.

While visiting with reporters at Pratt Pavilion Thursday before practice, Vols head coach Cuonzo Martin indicated that true freshman Darius Thompson would start and receive the lion’s share of minutes at the point guard spot Saturday if Barton was inactive, which appears likely.

“For (Darius), this is good opportunity to compete and make some plays, dribble-penetrate – just get a good feel for it,” Martin said. “He’ll be playing against some good guards. Those guys will push the ball, so he’ll have to defend, run his team. I think it will be good for him.”

A 2013 Tennessee Class AAA Mr. Basketball finalist who led Murfreesboro’s Blackman High School to a 30-1 record last spring, Thompson appeared poised to shoulder the load Saturday against Florida Southern College (1 p.m. ET tipoff).

“I feel like I’m really prepared” Thompson said. “My coaches got me ready to play, and all the leaders on the team came and told me to get ready. I think it will be good experience for me.”

Thompson said Barton has served as somewhat of a mentor to him this fall.

“(Antonio) has played three years of college basketball,” Thompson explained. “Sometimes when I’m doing something wrong, he’s there to tell me what I need to do better. So I take a lot from him; he’s been in the game (a long time).”

Barton is officially listed as day-to-day. Martin told reporters Thursday that starting shooting guard Jordan McRae would back up Thompson at point guard Saturday.

Tickets for Saturday’s exhibition, as well as the Nov. 7 exhibition contest against Southern Indiana, are just $5 each and can be purchased in person at the UT Ticket Office, via phone by calling 1-800-332-8657 or online at www.UTtix.com.

The Associated Press released its preseason top-25 poll Thursday afternoon. Tennessee – tabbed as a top-25 team by multiple other media outlets and publications – barely missed out on making the AP’s initial poll.

The Vols essentially came in at No. 26, as they were the top vote-getter among the schools listed as “receiving votes.” Tennessee tallied 176 votes, four fewer than No. 25 Baylor.

“I don’t really consume myself with it,” Martin said when asked about his squad being left out of the preseason top 25. “I think at the end of the day, you have to prove yourself as a team. You have to compete. I think our guys will be motivated by it – as individual basketball players and as a team – to be successful.”

Tennessee also was among the teams receiving votes in the preseason coaches’ poll, which was released Oct. 17. The Vols’ 73 votes in that poll essentially equated to a No. 30 national ranking.

For a team that features so many battle-tested veterans and All-Conference candidates, are the Vols bothered by being left out of the top 25 in October?

“No, not at all. It’s all about where you finish at the end (of the season),” senior forward Jeronne Maymon said. “Preseason rankings don’t really matter.”

Located in Lakeland, Fla., Florida Southern College has an enrollment of 2,185 and competes in the NCAA Division II Sunshine State Conference. Last season, the Moccasins posted a 27-6 overall record, tied for first place in the SSC with a 12-4 mark in league play and were ranked eighth in the year-end NABC Division II national poll.

Veteran head coach Linc Darner, who is entering his eighth season at FSC, has led the Mocs to six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, including an Elite Eight berth last year.

The Mocs return seven lettermen and three starters from last year’s squad, and they open 2013-14 exhibition play Friday at Florida.

Florida Southern averaged 84.9 ppg last season (7th in DII) and outscored their opponents by 10.4 ppg. The Mocs also led all of Division II with an impressive +6.8 turnover margin.

Returning guards Kevin Capers and Dominic Lane were Florida Southern’s second- and third-leading scorers last season, as each averaged 13.4 ppg. Lane led the Mocs in rebounding with 5.9 rpg.

Beginning with the 1991-92 season, Cuonzo Martin (then a freshman) and Darner (then a sophomore) were teammates at Purdue for three straight years.

During those three seasons, Martin and Darner led the Boilermakers to a 65-30 overall record, one Big Ten Championship (1994) and a pair of NCAA Tournament Appearances (1993, 1994).

Under the direction of Hall of Fame head coach Gene Keady, No. 1-seeded Purdue reached the Elite Eight in 1994 and finished 29-5 overall.

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