Rawane Ndiaye, all 6-feet-10 and 275 pounds of him, came off the bench to record 7 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks in 17 minutes as the Vols plucked the Screaming Eagles 78-47.
Given that "Pops" was a reserve at Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College last winter, many Tennessee fans were understandably skeptical about his potential contribution to the 2013-14 Vols. Ndiaye shed 20 pounds in recent months, however, and significantly upgraded his game in the process.
"It makes me faster, quicker, jump higher," he said of his trimmed-down frame. "I can move around the court the way I want to move but I'm still struggling (with stamina). I feel like I could lose more weight, so I'll keep working every day and try to get there."
Thursday's performance surprised fans who watched Ndiaye in the Rocky Top League last summer, moving ponderously and routinely failing to finish around the basket. He seemed a little smoother Thursday night.
"I feel like I did OK but I can do better," he said. "I learn every day, and this was a good opportunity for me to get out there and do what Coach expects me to do. Every day is going to get tougher, so I'm going to keep getting better."
Naturally, going against All-America candidate Jarnell Stokes in practice each day is helping Ndiaye fine-tune his game.
"He got me a lot better," Pops said. "I will give him all the credit. Going against these other guys (opponents) you feel it's a little easier than what I face (Stokes and Jeronne Maymon) in practice. Jarnell Stokes is one of the best big men in the nation. Going against him every day makes going against these other guys easier."
With Stokes and Maymon ahead of him, Ndiaye won't be called upon to do a lot of scoring this season. Basically, his role is simple.
"My biggest role probably will be defend the ball and protect the basket and rebound," he said. "If I can get one or two blocks per game, go for it."
Senior wing Jordan McRae, who led the Vols with 15 points and 3 steals, said Ndiaye's performance was a credit to perseverance and hard work.
"Seeing him progress every day, I'm not surprised how he played tonight," McRae said. "He's come a long way. Pops consistently works hard. He's a guy that wants to be good."
Junior wing Josh Richardson, who chipped in 12 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, was proud of Ndiaye's performance but not terribly surprised by it, either.
"I think Pops played well," Richardson said. "He's gotten so much better over the time he's been here. To see him have a game like this is good for him. He's dropped like 20 pounds, and he's definitely moving better in practice. We run sprints every day, and he's actually keeping up with people now."
Because of the lopsided score Ndiaye played more minutes (17) than starting posts Stokes and Maymon (15 each). Stokes produced 11 points and 7 rebounds in his stint, Maymon 7 points and 7 rebounds.
Tennessee won handily Thursday despite shooting a chilly 36.4 percent (28 of 77) from the floor and an icy 14.3 percent (3 of 21) from 3-point range. That's because the Vols were dynamic on defense and on the backboards. They limited Southern Indiana to 35.1 percent shooting, including 0 of 11 from 3. Tennessee won the rebound battle, 56-37.
The Vols led 44-26 at halftime and coasted home from there. They open for real Tuesday night at Xavier. That game will be televised by FoxSports with a 9 o'clock tipoff.