Surprisingly, this take-charge demeanor was not displayed by a senior. Or a junior. Or even a sophomore.
The Vol roster features four seniors (Brian Williams, Melvin Goins, John Fields, Steven Pearl) and three experienced juniors (Scotty Hopson, Cameron Tatum, Renaldo Woolridge). Thus, the thought of a raw rookie being the team leader seems patently absurd.
But it's true. A leader is the person a team looks to in the clutch. Wednesday night, with a trip to New York for the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals hanging in the balance, this team looked to its gifted freshman from Dix Hills, N.Y. And Tobias Harris filled the role as if he'd been born into it.
He sank an off-balance 10-footer from in front to bump the lead to 46-42 with 6:37 left. He drained a monumental 3 from the right corner that swelled the lead to 50-44 with 4:45 remaining. When Missouri State closed to 50-48, he hit a free throw with 2:42 left, then added two more at 1:05 to give the Vols a five-point lead entering the final minute.
Harris finished the evening with a team-high 15 points and the Vols finished with a 60-56 victory that earns them the berth opposite Virginia Commonwealth in the NIT semis on Nov. 24.
Naturally, the chance to play in New York City is a big deal for Harris, who grew up on Long Island. The prospect of doing so helped spur him during Wednesday night's stretch run.
"Mainly, I just wanted to win the game ... go back home and play in New York," he said. "It's a great opportunity for me and for us as a team to go there and face some great competition like VCU, Villanova and UCLA. This is going to be a challenge, so we've just got to take on the challenge."
Harris said his "whole family" will be attending the Vols' NIT games, adding: "A lot of my grandparents are from Brooklyn, so they're probably going to show up."
His parents were understandably thrilled when they saw the NIT on Tennessee's 2010-11 schedule. They've been gearing up for their son's return to New York for quite some time.
"They were talking about that since I got recruited to come here," he said. "It was one of the things they've looked forward to. I'm excited. I can't wait. It's another chance to get better and grow as a team. It's a great opportunity for us."
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl recently referred to Madison Square Garden as "hallowed ground," and that assessment is accurate. It is to basketball what Augusta National is to golf. Harris understands this.
"I played at the Garden one time before, and it's a great place to play," he said. "It was just a scrimmage for the Elite 24 (all-star) game but it was unreal."
Virginia Commonwealth, Tennessee's NIT semifinal foe, advanced with a 67-54 defeat of Winthrop and a 90-69 beat-down of Wake Forest on the Demon Deacons' home floor in Winston-Salem.
UCLA advanced to New York City by beating Pepperdine 79-69 and subduing Pacific 57-44.
Villanova advanced thanks to an 84-47 drubbing of Marist and an 82-66 defeat of Boston University.