A funny thing happened to Derek Reese on his way to redshirting as a Tennessee freshman: He evolved into one of the team's key players.
Given a projected six-month rehabilitation following Aug. 21 surgery to repair a labral tear in his right shoulder, Reese beat the timetable by two months. Cleared to play Dec. 28, he has improved in each of the four games he has played and is expected to make his first college start today when the Vols host Mississippi State at 4:01 in Thompson-Boling Arena.
"I think I'm playing really well — coming off the injury and the surgery and stuff," the 6-foot-8, 208-pound Reese said this week. "I'm contributing a lot to the team. I just want to keep working hard, keep getting better."
Because he lost 15 pounds and considerable muscle tone while rehabilitating his shoulder injury, Reese gets pushed around a bit under the backboards these days. He's determined to fix that as quickly as possible.
"I'm just getting in the weight room — gaining more weight, gaining more strength," he said.
Because he missed a lot of practice during his four-month recovery period, his skills atrophied along with his muscles. He's doing his best to get back on top of his game.
"I'm working to tighten everything up — my shooting, my ballhandling," Reese said. "I don't want to focus on one thing. I want to work on everything."
Reese seems to improve each time he takes the floor. After debuting with 7 points against Xavier in Game 11, he missed Game 12 against Memphis due to an ankle sprain, but bounced back with 7 points in Game 13 against Ole Miss. He scored 5 points in Game 14 at Alabama, his first college road game, and was even better in his second college road game. Playing before 24,000 screaming fans at Rupp Arena, he coolly drained 3 of 6 shots and scored 9 points in Game 15 at Kentucky last Tuesday night.
"He's been big playing in places like Alabama and Rupp Arena," Vol teammate Jordan McRae said of Reese. "That's something most freshmen can't do. He's done a great job with that."
Reese showed his poise at Kentucky, draining a clutch 3-pointer to give the Vols a 54-53 lead with 7:16 remaining. That gave him an emotional boost, even though Tennessee faded late and lost 75-65.
"I gained a lot of confidence after hitting that shot," he recalled. "I told myself after hitting that shot that I wanted to hit another one but it didn't turn out that way."
Although he faced some quality competition as a high school player in Orlando, Fla., Reese has found the rigors of SEC play require considerable adjustment.
"Getting used to the physicality is the tough part," he said. "It's a lot faster and more physical but I'm getting used to it. I'm adjusting really well."
Reese could be the key to Tennessee's season. One reason the Vols are 8-7 and riding a four-game losing streak is the fact they're among the NCAA's worst 3-point shooting teams at 29 percent. Reese is an exceptional 3-point shooter who nailed 40 percent of his treys while representing Puerto Rico in the Nike Global Challenge last summer.
"When I was younger that's all I wanted to do. That's all I could do ... shoot," he recalled. "When I was younger I had to play against older people. I was shorter than everybody else, so I had to learn to dribble and how to shoot. That just stuck with me. Now that I'm usually going against smaller guys, it gives me an advantage."
GAME NOTES: Mississippi State brings a 7-8 overall record and a 2-1 SEC mark into this afternoon's game. Today represents a homecoming for Bulldog starting guard Jalen Steele, a Knoxville native who graduated from Fulton High School.... Vol head man Cuonzo Martin and first-year Mississippi State head man Rick Ray were co-workers on Matt Painter's Purdue staff in 2006-07 and 2007-08.... Tennessee currently ranks eighth nationally with an average home attendance of 16,573. It will be interesting to see how the four-game losing streak impacts today's turnout.... McRae ranks second among all SEC players in league scoring at 23.3 points per game. He is sixth in field-goal percentage at 52.2. McRae has scored 20-plus points in four straight games, becoming the first Vol to turn that trick since All-American Chris Lofton scored 20 or more points in five straight games in 2008.... Senior post Kenny Hall will be playing in his 100th Tennessee game today. Former Vol Chase Headley, the 2012 National League RBI leader, Gold Glove winner and Silver Slugger honoree, will be recognized during today's game. Head coach Butch Jones and the rest of Tennessee’s new football coaching staff also will be introduced on the floor during the game.... Today's game will be televised by the SEC Network.