While most incoming college freshmen switched around class times on their schedule, Kyle Alexander switched countries.
The Canadian big man picked Tennessee as his college destination, spurning finalist New Mexico to travel down south and play for Rick Barnes and his staff in Knoxville. Aside from the weather and portion sizes at dinner, Alexander hasn’t experienced too difficult a transition as he acclimates to life in the U.S. after crossing the southern border.
“It’s a big culture shock, but I’m loving it so far. The transition hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be,” Alexander told InsideTennessee. “My teammates are making it pretty easy. My teammates are awesome. Basketball-wise, just the speed and the physicality of the game is always something that’s going to be harder when you go from a prep school to college. That’s the biggest difference so far.”
The 6-foot-9, 220-pound center has gained nearly 20 pounds of muscle since stepping into the program under the tutelage of Vols strength and conditioning coach Garrett Medenwald. But that doesn’t mean he’s lost a step on the floor. Barnes, who says Alexander “runs like a deer,” is using Medenwald’s teachings to get even faster.
“He’s not just working on getting us stronger, he’s working on getting us more mobile on the court in terms of changing direction, being more flexible, stuff like that,” Alexander said. “The fact that he’s able to do that and get us stronger at the same time, he helped me. I came in 20 pounds lighter than I am now.
“Because I’m not the strongest guy on the court, it helps to have a quickness advantage over some of the players. That helps a lot going up and down and getting around players who are just bigger than you. That helps a lot.”
Tennessee hopes to use Alexander’s speed for easy buckets in transition and to prevent him from having to go up against stronger and more physical centers as much inside. But even when he’s forced to bang around in the paint, the freshman has proven he isn’t afraid to chase down boards or post up in the low block.
“I’m not sure how far he can take it, but I do know it’s going to be fun to watch,” associate head coach Rob Lanier told IT. “My gut tells me he’s got a tremendously bright future. He works really hard. He tries to do everything you ask, literally, the way you ask him. I think that bodes well for him.”
Barnes has also come away impressed so far with his potential starting center, noting how his physicality and mentality have grown in just a few short months with the program. Alexander has only played basketball for three years, and earlier in the season Barnes jokingly said he’s so new to the sport he’s probably never even played “21” in his life.
That newness translates into overthinking on the floor at times, which Barnes wants to shed as he continues developing his Canadian talent.
"Physically, he has gotten stronger. He's another player that has put a lot of time in the gym and a guy we expect a lot from," Barnes said. "He gets better every day. Now, he has to understand what we're doing. He's very mechanical right now, very robotic in just trying to make sure he is getting one thing done as opposed to flowing and going from play to play. You guys are going to enjoy watching him grow as much as we are."
The first-year Tennessee coach compared Alexander to former Texas star and 2011 first round NBA draft pick Tristan Thompson, a fellow Canadian who plays the same position as Alexander. Barnes' impressive coaching resume recruiting studs like Thompson drew Alexander to Tennessee, and one day he wants to be the player on the other end of the comparison.
“The fact that he recruited me and he was able to help get those guys from where they were to where they want to go, which is the pros," Alexander said. "I hope eventually, maybe when he’s recruiting other guys, he’ll compare them to me.”