Tennessee needed to find some good mojo after staring down the barrel of a three-game losing streak heading into Wednesday's game against Florida Atlantic.
Luckily for the Vols (5-4), point guard Kevin Punter provided plenty of his own as he helped power his team past the Owls, 81-62, in Thompson-Boling Arena. Punter's 26 points in 37 minutes were enough to secure both his sixth consecutive game with 20 or more points and a win over a fiesty FAU team.
"What he does is such an important part of what we want to do," Barnes said. "It really is. We have to go after those elbows and the high percentage area."
Barnes' squad built a 36-27 halftime lead, but FAU didn't let that stop it from climbing back into things after the break. The Owls cut the lead to 53-48 with 9:46 before an 18-2 run buried FAU for good.
Tennessee outrebounded the Owls 45-31 and dominated in the paint for 42 points in the win. Barnes called it perhaps his team's best defensive effort of the young season and one it can build upon as the Vols head to Seattle to take on Gonzaga Saturday in the "Battle for Seattle."
"We worked hard in the Butler game trying to do that," Barnes said. "It really goes back to space and doing the work early and being ready to catch it and going to work."
Former Tennessee signee C.J. Turman, who signed with the Vols in 2014 before leaving after the departure of former head coach Cuonzo Martin, was held to seven points on 1-of-7 shooting. The collective defensive performance made up for a sloppy offense that gave up 15 turnovers and struggled to get movement.
"We were too stagnant offensively," Barnes said. "Defensively, I think when I look at it, I probably think overall with our positioning and all that, it might have been as good a defensive game as we've played."
Rick Barnes has no problem getting after any of his players, especially freshman center Kyle Alexander. The Canadian-born athlete has seen expectations of himself soar with the coaching staff as he continues to develop, and that sometimes leads to being the funnel for Barnes' anger in practice.
Alexander turned in his worst performance of the season against No. 18 Butler, one Barnes called "absolutely awful", as he failed to score a single point, notch a single rebound or toss a single assist in 15 minutes. The only mark he made on the stat sheet were the two fouls he committed in the Vols' 94-86 road loss.
"I probably am harder on him than I normally would be, but the fact is, we've got great expectations for him," Barnes said. "He's going to end up being one of the great running post guys that we've had. H'es got great hands. He overthinks things. He's probably harder on himself than I am on him, but I'm not going to let him off the hook. I love him to death."
Back in Knoxville Wednesday, Alexander used 22 minutes to notch six points, six rebounds and three blocks in a complete turnaround from his performance against Butler.
"It was great to get a couple extra minutes tonight, but I'm happy that I needed to do what I needed to do to help the team win," Alexander said. "When you watch the film, you've got to see where you went wrong. To be honest, I was kind of embarrassed how I played (against Butler), so I talked to my dad, talked to my coaches, and I had to make a decision to mature and grow up and to be disciplined to do what I had to do. Today, I had to come in and take care of the little details that help the bigger picture."
Alexander's energy running the floor and aggressiveness along the boards helped Tennesse dominate in the rebounding category and put away FAU in the second half for a big 19-point win.
"It's great to know if I put my mind to it, I can have a turnaround in a couple of days," he said. "I need to continue to do that, to go into every game thinking like tonight. I need to be on my A-game."
Barnes believes his freshman's experience this season will turn in a huge profit down the road.
"This is a really big year for him and I thought tonight he really got down and played" Barnes said. "Every minute he plays is like putting money in the bank. That account's just going to grow and grow and grow."
The loudest cheer of the night came early in the second half when walk-on Brad Woodson entered the game. The freshman from Murfreesboro notched one assist in seven minutes and helped space the floor and get the offense moving for the short time he played
"I've been telling him I'm going to play him, and I think what he'll do — and this is a coaching thing — he goes in the game, and he cut the way we want to cut," Barnes said. "He got in the stance the way we want to do it. We have confidence in him, it's just a matter of putting him there."
Woodson's basketball acumen and grasp of Barnes' quick offensive system ushered him into the matchup against FAU after Barnes said he wished he had given him more playing time earlier in the season.
"The fact is, Brad can shoot the ball," Barnes said. "He knows exactly what we're trying to do on both ends of the floor, so I thought that was a good experience for him. I'm really not afraid to put him in the game ... We're going to use him and we think he can help us."
Seeing Scouting Progress
Rick Barnes chided his team earlier in the season for failing to simply do what he tells them to prior to the game. Barnes spends extensive time watching film and studying opposing teams, and felt his players weren't always adept at grasping his teachings during the fast pace of a game.
On Wednesday, the first-year Tennessee coach was much happier with the way his team played schematically.
"There's no question they did better with the scouting report, understanding what we're trying to do and playing personnel" Barnes said. "We're going to have to have that."