With senior center Brian Williams sidelined by a sore back, Hall got to play a season-high 21 minutes vs. the Big Blue. He responded with 6 points, 6 rebounds and a blocked shot. It was an impressive performance for a guy who scarcely broke a sweat the previous two months.
Hall made his only start of the season Dec. 31 vs. College of Charleston but saw a mere nine minutes of action. After that, he played in just 10 of the Vols' next 17 games. Even when he played, he was limited to cameo roles - 3 minutes vs. Memphis, 2 minutes at Georgia, 4 minutes vs. LSU and at Ole Miss, 3 minutes vs. Alabama, 2 minutes at Florida, 7 minutes vs. South Carolina, 5 minutes vs. Georgia, 3 minutes at Vanderbilt and 5 minutes at South Carolina.
Instead of pouting or complaining, the 6-8, 215-pounder from Stone Mountain, Ga., swallowed his pride and tried to mask his disappointment.
"Of course, for anybody it's going to be frustrating ... any competitor," he recalled. "But I listened to a lot of people, and the coaches always told me 'Stay right and stay ready.' Really, that's what I did ... stay right and stay ready, keep myself in good shape."
Still, the 2010-11 season has been a major setback for Hall, who exhibited considerable promise as a freshman last season. He shot 57.8 percent (52 of 90) from the field and grabbed 104 rebounds (52 of them offensive) in 435 minutes.
Stuck behind seniors Williams and UNC Wilmington transfer John Fields, however, Hall has been relegated to mop-up duty this season. After averaging 12.4 minutes per game as a freshman in 2009-10, he averaged just 6.5 minutes thus far in 2010-11.
Bruce Pearl says there simply weren't enough minutes to divide among three centers.
"I had Brian, I had John and I had Kenny - and two out of the three were going to play," the coach said. "Kenny opened the door for those other two early in the season by not being effective. Then Brian and John just kind of hung onto it, and Kenny was not able to overcome them in practice or in short stints (of game action) during the course of the year.
"It bothers me, as a coach, to see a player that wants to be out there and contribute not be out there because somebody's ahead of him. But Brian and John were never way ahead of Kenny."
Williams averaged a modest 7.0 points per game during the regular season, shooting 51.6 percent from the field and 51.4 from the foul line. Fields averaged 2.9 points per game, shooting 58.7 from the field and 46.4 from the line. Many fans figured Hall could do better, and Pearl agrees with them.
"I've always maintained that Kenny's a better scorer than either one of those guys," the coach said. "Defense, rebounding, effort, energy and lots of things I use to evaluate a student-athlete ... Kenny could never overcome Brian and John as seniors."
As a result, Williams and Fields played, while Hall watched and waited. The wait finally ended when Williams missed the South Carolina and Kentucky games with a sore back. Hall sensed an opportunity to pick up the slack.
"Yeah, I did, and I still feel that way," he said. "I need to step up and really fill his shoes."
Although Hall made 3 of 6 shots against Kentucky and tied for the team-high in rebounds, he was far from happy with his performance.
"I felt like I played decent but not good enough for us to get a win," he said. "If we would've gotten the win, I might've felt like I played a lot better but I didn't. I missed three shots - two of them right there under the basket - and I felt like I could've gotten a lot more rebounds."
Pearl wasn't nearly so critical, calling Hall's performance "his best game this year," then adding: "Kenny played really well. Kenny's really been battling. His attitude was really good the last week. You can see that Kenny can help us. He brought some energy, and it was good to have him out there."
Fortunately for the Vols, Hall worked hard in practice to stay ready, even when he wasn't getting a chance to showcase his skills in games.
"It was good for Kenny (to stay ready)," Pearl said. "I think his attitude has been positive and he's been trying to stay right and ready through some adversity."
Tennessee fans can be thankful that adversity didn't cause Hall to transfer. That would've put the Vols in a terrible bind at center next season, since Williams and Fields will be gone. Pearl admits that the potential impact of losing Hall crossed his mind a few times.
"Knowing Kenny is very important to us in future, you say, 'You play Kenny Hall because he's got a chance to get better,' but I've got to evaluate them based on what I see," the coach said. "John and Brian proved to me that they'd worked the hardest and that's why they logged the lion's share of the minutes.
"But it was great to see Kenny stay right and ready and contribute. You could see his ability. You can see Kenny's got great potential to be a really solid SEC front-line player."