Bolstered Vols host Mercer

You'll want to visit InsideTennessee regularly for quality coverage of Vol sports. Check out this insightful preview of tonight's Tennessee-Mercer basketball game:

Tennessee basketball coach Donnie Tyndall has two reasons for guarded optimism heading into tonight’s 7 o’clock tipoff against Mercer at Thompson-Boling Arena:

Reason No. 1: guard Devon Baulkman

Reason No. 2: guard Ian Chiles

Baulkman is a junior college transfer from Gulf Coast State College, Chiles a graduate transfer from IUPUI. Both have been hampered by injuries but both appear ready to contribute moving forward.

A shoulder problem caused Baulkman to miss most of the preseason, plus the regular-season opener against Virginia Commonwealth. The 6-foot-5, 200-pound junior played sparingly in Games 2, 3 and 4 but saw 20 minutes of action in Game 5 against Marquette. He scored just 2 points but led the Vols in assists (4) and ranked second in rebounds (6). He followed with 4 points, 2 rebounds and an assist in Game 6 versus Kansas State.

Starting Game 7 against Butler, Baulkman shot poorly (1 of 7) but produced 3 points, 3 rebounds an assist and a steal in 18 minutes. He started again at North Carolina State in Game 8, sinking 2 of 4 shots (2 of 2 from 3), 4 of 4 foul shots and scoring 10 points in just 14 minutes. Returning to reserve duty, he cracked double figures again in Game 9, producing 10 points by hitting 3 of 4 shots (2 of 2 from 3) and 2 of 3 free throws. He also contributed 3 rebounds, a block and 2 steals in 18 solid minutes.

On his way to back-to-back 10-point efforts, Baulkman’s stat line for the past two games shows him hitting 5 of 8 field goals, 4 of 4 treys and 6 of 7 foul shots. He also contributed 3 rebounds, 3 steals and a blocked shot in 32 total minutes.

“I’m just getting used to the system and pushing myself more in practice,” he said. “And I’m getting my conditioning up.”

Asked if he sees his role as providing some backcourt scoring to lighten the load on senior Josh Richardson, Baulkman nodded and replied: “Yes, sir. And defend and rebound the ball.”

Baulkman made perhaps the biggest play of Friday night’s game with Tennessee Tech. With the Vols clinging to a 55-51 lead entering the final 90 seconds, 6-foot-8 freshman Willie Carmichael got a steal and shoveled the ball to Baulkman, who scored inside and was fouled. The three-point play bumped the lead to 58-51 with 53 seconds left, and the Vols went on to win 61-58.

Afterward, Baulkman downplayed his role in the win, noting: “I was just trying to come to the ball. I knew Willie would need help.”

Chiles might be the strangest story on the Vol roster. The 6-foot-1 combo guard was viewed as the odds-on favorite to be Tennessee’s first-team point guard when he signed last April but hernia surgery sidelined him shortly after he arrived on campus. Next came a torn labrum in his left shoulder, followed by a nagging foot injury. As a result, he missed most of preseason practice, played one mop-up minute in the opener, then sat out the next seven games.

“His shoulder bothered him early, then his foot really bothered him for about a month,” Tyndall said. “It seems like he’s about 90 percent now. He’s doing better in practice. Being healthy gave him a little confidence, which I think led to him practicing better.”

Teammates say Chiles has been practicing quite well lately, showing some firepower.

“I’ve seen it in flashes,” Richardson said. “Sometimes during practice he’ll just go off – hit like four straight 3s – and it’s crazy. He has the potential to help us out a lot this year.”

Tyndall clearly agrees. Although Chiles hadn’t played since that one-minute relief stint in Game 1, the coach inserted him at point guard for the second half of Game 9 against Tennessee Tech. Chiles immediately drove to score on a floater but then missed a 3-pointer.

“We needed a lift at halftime, so we went with Ian,” Tyndall explained. “He hadn’t played in but one game but he drove the ball early and had the nice little shot off the glass. Then he forced a shot early in the shot clock from about 22 feet … but he was just excited to get out there and play.”

Excited or not, Chiles was pulled from the lineup and spent the rest of the game on the bench.

“When you haven’t played a guy a whole bunch, it’s hard to really trust him to play when it’s a one- or two-possession game,” Tyndall explained. “But I thought he did a nice job in his minutes that he played.”

As a fifth-year senior, Chiles’ experience could prove invaluable at the critical point-guard position … if he can stay healthy.

“Ian has been working very hard in practice, getting us better,” Carmichael said. “We need a point guard, as everyone sees, and he might be that guy. We’ve just got to keep pushing him.”

GAME NOTES: Mercer brings a 6-5 record into tonight’s game, Tennessee a 5-4 mark…. Junior guard Ike Nwamu leads the Bears in scoring (17.3 points per game) and 3-point shooting (42.1 percent)…. Mercer ended Tennessee’s 2013 season by upsetting the Vols 75-67 in Round 1 of the National Invitation Tournament. Tennessee returned the favor by ending Mercer’s 2014 season with an 83-63 romp at Raleigh, N.C., in the NCAA Round of 32…. Richardson ravaged the Bears last time out, hitting 9 of 13 shots en route to a career-high 26 points…. Tennessee’s strength of schedule is rated sixth nationally by ESPN’s Basketball Power Index…. The Vols have warmed up considerably from beyond the arc lately. After shooting just 26.5 percent from 3 in Games 1 through 6, the Big Orange hit 46.2 percent in Games 7 through 9…. Tonight’s game will be televised by the SEC Network.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories