"Antonio was the driver on that team and Will was the passenger," Lake Clifton head man Herman Harried recalled. "That's no knock on Will, who is one of the most talented players in the country. I just felt Antonio had to be in the driver's seat for that team. He had never done that before but he accepted the role and drove the car to the Promised Land."
Indeed. With Antonio running the offense and also doing a significant share of the scoring, Lake Clifton dominated the opposition en route to a 28-0 record.
"Will is an extremely gifted and talented young man but I think Antonio was the key to the whole thing," Harried said. "He was surrounded by collegiate talent, so he had to manage that – getting shots for everybody else, as well as doing a lot of scoring himself. I think the role that I gave him was new to him but he accepted it and never looked back."
Antonio's emergence as a star that season shocked many observers. Prior to that he was little more than "Will's brother" in basketball circles.
"He was overshadowed by Will a lot but it wasn't intentional," Harried said. "The two brothers are close and love each other very much. Will just picked up a lot of hype early, so it was always Will and Antonio. But Antonio didn't have a problem with that. He's a very humble, level-headed young man and he understood what was going on. He understood he was just as good."
The Bartons returned to their accustomed roles a year later. Although they attended different prep schools, high-scoring Will was in the forefront (accorded five-star status by Scout.com) and Antonio was in the background (rated a mere two-star).
The pattern continued when they enrolled at the University of Memphis. Despite starting 12 games as a Tiger freshman and 19 as a sophomore, Antonio kept being overshadowed by his brother. Will starred as a freshman, then won Conference USA Player of the Year recognition as a sophomore. Electing to bypass his remaining college eligibility, he was a second-round pick of the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2012 NBA Draft.
With Will gone to the NBA, Antonio seemed destined to emerge from the shadows in 2012-13. Not so. Fellow Tiger junior Joe Jackson blossomed into a star, winning C-USA Player of the Year honors and relegating Antonio to a backup role. Worse, a hairline fracture in his right foot caused him to miss nearly two months of action.
Rather than spend another year backing up Jackson, Barton decided to finish his degree at Memphis this month and enroll at Tennessee as a graduate transfer for his final season of eligibility. With Will's shadow and Joe Jackson's shadow no longer in play, basketball fans may see a different Antonio Barton than the one on display at Memphis the past three seasons.
"I truly believe they haven't seen his best," Harried said. "They've seen glimpses of it but I truly believe once this season is over a lot of people are going to say, ‘Wow!'"
Barton played just 16.7 minutes per contest at Memphis last season. Harried believes more minutes will help his protege showcase the full range of his skills.
"I think sharing time with other players inhibited him exposing his full potential," the high school coach said. "He also had some injuries this past year. At Tennessee I think he'll get the time he needs to show what he's capable of doing."
So, what is he capable of doing?
"He's going to be a very solid guard," Harried said. "He'll fit in well, and I know for a fact that the other guys on the team will take him in with open arms. He's not an arrogant, egotistical, selfish person. He's a team player all the way."
"A lot of schools were very interested in him, so it wasn't an easy decision for him to make," Harried said. "Tennessee is very fortunate, and they'll realize how fortunate they are once he gets on campus and does what he's good at doing."
Although he averaged a modest 6.9 points per game during his three years at Memphis, the 6-foot-2 Barton shot 45.3 percent from the field and an impressive 41.7 percent from 3-point range. He's a dependable ball-handler who posted 142 assists compared to 109 turnovers. He's also an active defender, capable of taking an opponent out of his game.
"He's a very tough young man, physically and mentally," Harried said. "Him graduating in three years says a lot about his maturity level. It's difficult to graduate in four years. For him to graduate in three years shows a maturity level that I believe will show up on the court, as well."
Tennessee already is a mature team at four positions. Junior Jarnell Stokes has started for 1½ seasons and senior Jeronne Maymon started in 2011-12 before missing last season with a knee injury. They give the Vols one of the best post tandems in college basketball. Josh Richardson is back at small forward after starting all 33 games last season. Jordan McRae is back at shooting guard after making first-team All-SEC in 2012-13.
The car is loaded. It just needs a driver.