Vanderbilt’s 6-foot-10 Damian Jones burned Tennessee for 18 points and 15 rebounds in the second round of the recent SEC Tournament, then Arkansas’s 6-foot-11 Bobby Portis skewered the Vols for 26 points and 11 rebounds in eliminating them a day later.
Clearly, Tennessee must make a lot of progress in its post play between now and the start of the 2015-16 season. The odds of landing a college-ready difference-maker in the spring signing period are slim, so most of the improvement must come from three freshman holdovers – 6-foot-10 Tariq Owens, 6-foot-8 Willie Carmichael and 6-foot-8 Jabari McGhee, who missed the final 24 games due to foot surgery.
Facing Portis, recently voted SEC Player of the Year, was both humbling and beneficial for Owens and Carmichael.
“Playing against him, I got to see a high-caliber player and see his skill set,” Owens said. “That definitely helped me a lot: playing major minutes against somebody like him.”
Carmichael went a step further, noting: “There are a lot of quality bigs in this league — Bobby Portis, Damian Jones, (Kentucky’s) Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein – and they got us better over the year. We’ve just got to keep grinding in the gym to get better over the offseason.”
Actually, they need to get bigger, as well as better. Carmichael reported to Knoxville last summer at 185 pounds and finished the year at 210. Still, he needs another 20 pounds. Owens showed up carrying 184 pounds and now packs 204. He could use another 30-40 pounds.
“I added about 20 pounds but that’s not enough,” Owens conceded. “I’ve got to work this summer and put on some more. I need to add another 10 to 15 by the first session of summer school. I need to put on as much weight as I can.”
Owens learned in pre-conference play that he was too thin for the rigors of high-major basketball. That lesson was underscored once the Vols began SEC action. Time and again he’d be pushed away from the basket by stouter opponents.
“I’m a freshman, and I played against a lot of guys in the league who definitely were more experienced and bigger than me,” Owens said. “That definitely shows how much I’ve got to work to get where I want to be.”
Not all of the “bigs” Owens and Carmichael encountered were 250-pound bruisers. One of the best post players Tennessee faced was 6-foot-8, 235-pound LSU sophomore Jordan Mickey. Blessed with incredible athleticism, he should be a first-round NBA Draft pick someday.
“Jordan Mickey is someone who’s really athletic and can step out and shoot the mid-range jump shot,” Carmichael noted. “From defending him to defending a player like Damian Jones, that’s just going way up above the rim, it’s been a learning experience along the way.”
Having played mostly forward in high school, Owens was totally unprepared for the rigors of post play. Carmichael played post in high school but encountered a whole new level of physicality at the collegiate level.
“Me and Tariq came into the SEC, and we didn’t know what to do,” Carmichael conceded. “Coach (Donnie) Tyndall took us in like we was his own kids and we basically started from scratch. I improved a lot … me and Tariq both.”
Owens started five of 28 games, averaging 7.6 minutes, 1.2 points and 1.1 rebounds per game. His best outing was his last one — 7 points and 3 rebounds versus Arkansas in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. An active defender, he registered 13 blocks in 214 minutes this season, an average of one every 16 minutes.
Carmichael played in all 32 games, starting 19. He averaged 14.8 minutes, 3.0 points and 2.3 rebounds per contest. His best outing came against Texas Southern, when he recorded season highs for points (10) and rebounds (7). He shot a commendable 51.9 percent from the field this season and peeled 44 of his 75 rebounds off the offensive glass.
The X factor at the post position is McGhee, who played in just eight games before getting injured. The 6-foot-8, 210-pounder got two starts on his way to averaging 12.9 minutes, 4.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. He shot a sizzling 70 percent (14 of 20) from the field and grabbed 16 of his 30 rebounds off the offensive glass. His best game was against Santa Clara, when he made 4 of 5 field goals to finish with 8 points and 9 rebounds in 19 impressive minutes.
“We wish we’d had him with us this entire time,” Carmichael said, “but Jabari will be back and he’ll be strong.”
Owns agreed, noting: “With Jabari rehabbing and getting better, he’ll be ready to start (practicing) soon. With the three of us working hard, I feel really good about the three of us coming back next year.”
Vol teammates seem encouraged by the late-season play of the freshman posts.
“Man, those guys played big this year,” guard Kevin Punter said. “They gave their all, played hard. They messed up sometimes, missed some layups, but those guys gave their all.”
Fellow guard Robert Hubbs fully expects the three rookies to be significantly better next season than they were this season.
“They’re real young and athletic,” he said. “They’re definitely going to get stronger and bigger this offseason, and they’re going to contribute a lot to our team next year.”