He’ll take the floor for Saturday’s 1 o’clock tipoff against Texas A&M with a smile on his face and a five-inch scar on his right shoulder. The smile stems from cracking the starting lineup with some hard work on the backboards. The scar stems from a gash he suffered battling under the basket Tuesday night at South Carolina.
Reese got no scars his first two years on The Hill because all he did was launch long-range jump shots. Sixty-seven of the 106 field goals he attempted as a freshman and sophomore were 3-pointers. With the 2014-15 Vols void of big men, however, the 6-foot-8, 220-pound junior has switched from playing on the perimeter to playing on the block, basketball’s version of a combat zone.
First-year head coach Donnie Tyndall essentially offered Reese an ultimatum last summer: Start playing on the inside or stop playing altogether.
“It has not been easy with Derek because he was in the mindset that he was a 2 guard and wanted to play at 25 feet and be pretty and shoot jump shots for 40 minutes,” Tyndall recalled. “He finally figured out after about three months he wasn't going to play. He would not check into the game on our team with that mentality, so he had to change. Now to his credit, he has changed, and he is playing well. His numbers in league play – 7.8 points and 7.5 rebounds – that is hard to do.”
Reese remembers that ultimatum from his coach quite well.
“He told me, ‘If you want to play you’ve got to rebound. You’ve got to defend. You’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to get inside.’ He was telling me to use what I can do,” Reese recalled. “He knew what I could do in terms of attacking the basket but my mindset always was to just shoot (jump shots), thinking that’s the only thing I could do.
“I had other things I could do but I wasn’t really using them. He gave me the confidence to really attack the basket.”
Lesson learned. Still, the player needed a refresher course in November. After launching seven 3-pointers in a Game 4 loss to Kansas, Reese saw his playing time cut from 29 minutes to 11 in Game 5. Since then he has been driving more and bombing less. As a result, he is averaging nearly 30 minutes per game over the past six contests. As his minutes went up, so did his production.
“I feel like it’s helped me a lot – playing time, confidence, helping the team in different areas,” he said. “It’s a mismatch playing the 5 (center). I’ve got a big man guarding me, so being able to drive the ball and shoot brings another advantage for us.”
No one is happier for Reese than senior Josh Richardson, who has witnessed quite a transformation in his teammate during the past 2½ years.
“He’s definitely been playing a lot tougher this year,” Richardson said. “Coach Tyndall has done a good job of making him more aggressive at both ends of the court. I think he’s taken heed to what Coach has told him, and the results are showing.
“He’s always been a tough kid but he’s never really put it all together on the court. Just seeing him be able to grab tough rebounds in clutch situations or even be mentally tough enough to take a big shot is a lot different.”
After a 4-4 start, Tennessee has won eight of its last nine games, including four of five SEC contests. Reese’s solid work as an undersized center has played a key role in the rally.
“It’s been big,” Tyndall said. “It’s a tough matchup for the opponent’s 5 man because Derek’s really what we call a pick-and-pop 4 man, so you have nice spacing on the floor and you get a chance to drive it.”
Whereas Reese’s range creates matchup problems for 6-foot-10, 260-pound opposing centers, their heft creates matchup problems for him when Tennessee is playing defense.
“A concern about playing Derek at the 5 is obviously at the other end: Are we going to be physical enough on our front line to rebound the ball?” Tyndall conceded. “But Derek’s averaging almost eight rebounds a game in conference play, so he’s stepped up and certainly been very productive.”
Reese produced 8 points and 8 rebounds in Tuesday’s win at South Carolina, matching his averages for the Vols’ first five SEC games. Asked if that level of production satisfies him, he nodded tentatively.
“It does but I want to do more,” he said. “I want to try and get a double-double each game. I try to be the best that I can, reach the potential I know I can do.”
Tyndall believes a string of double-doubles could be within reach if Reese continues to exhibit the toughness he has shown the past few weeks.
"We've had to push him extremely hard,” the coach said. “Derek is a great kid but he's a laid-back kid. He doesn't like to get out of his comfort zone. That is the case with a lot of young guys, and it is my job to push them outside of their comfort zone and, hopefully, get him to do things he has never done before.
“He is doing a lot of good things, and I think the sky is the limit for Derek if his mentality and approach stay where they are now."
Certainly, Reese's mentality is a lot tougher than it once was. He's got the battle scar to prove it.
2014: A ‘SPACE’ ODYSSEY
Texas A&M swept Tennessee in 2014 thanks to two late 3-pointers by unlikely hero Antwan Space, a 6-foot-8 forward who made just 13 of 51 shots behind the arc all last season. His trey with four seconds left beat the Vols 57-56 in Knoxville and his 3 at the overtime buzzer beat Tennessee 68-65 in the rematch at College Station.
Asked what he thinks when he hears the name Antwan Space, Vol guard Josh Richardson deadpanned, “Swish!”
Now a junior, Space is averaging just 4.7 points per game and hitting 25 percent (3 of 12) from 3-point range. Still, the Vols know what he's capable of doing at crunch time. As Richardson noted: “If he’s in the game at the end this year, I’m definitely going to tell whoever’s near him not to give him any space.”
GAME NOTES: Like Tennessee, Texas A&M brings a 12-5 record into Saturday's game. The Aggies are 3-2 in SEC play after an 0-2 start. Since losing to top-ranked Kentucky 70-64 in a two-overtime thriller Jan. 10 at College Station, the Aggies have beaten Mississippi State 74-70, LSU 67-64 and Missouri 62-50. The LSU win was on the road.... Tennessee leads the series with Texas A&M 5-3. The Vols are 3-1 in Knoxville, 1-2 in College Station and 1-0 at neutral sites…. Aggie coach Billy Kennedy faced Vol coach Donnie Tyndall 11 times from 2006-2011, while Kennedy was coaching at Murray State and Tyndall was head man at Ohio Valley Conference rival Morehead State. Kennedy won eight of the 11 meetings…. Tennessee and A&M produced the longest game in Vol history on Feb. 23, 2013, going four overtimes before the Big Orange prevailed 93-85 at College Station…. In an incredible coincidence, both programs have featured a superstar named Bernard King. Tennessee’s version, widely regarded as the greatest player in program history, averaged 25.8 points per game for his career, earned All-America honors three times and is the only Vol in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. A&M’s Bernard King is the Big XII Conference leader in career scoring (1,990 points) and ranks third in career assists (550)…. Saturday’s game tips off at 1 o’clock with TV coverage by Fox Sports.