Rick Barnes has to go back nearly 40 years, when he was a young assistant at George Mason in the early 1980s, to remember a similar player like the one he has in freshman forward Kyle Alexander. Then again, it's hard to find a comparison for a 6-foot-9 Canadian who's worked his way into a starting role with only two years of organized basketball under his belt.
After committing to Tennessee in May, freshman Kyle Alexander himself admits he didn't expect to see much playing time as the lowest man on a totem pole still under construction. But as Barnes' team continues to find its identity and the first-year Vols coach experiments with his young nucleus, Alexander has carved out a niche on the team.
"I think, as a freshman, I didn't really expect to much," Alexander said. "You just kind of hope that you can make an impact on the team and just kind of contribute a little bit, but I think I'm definitely doing a lot more than I thought I could. You know, only playing basketball for two years, I didn't think that I could come in and have a major role on the team, but I'm liking how much I'm being able to contribute right now."
The Ontario native's stats won't put him on any first ballot All-SEC teams. Alexander averages just 1.7 points, 1.0 blocks and 2.9 rebounds per game, but his ongoing improvement in both the weight and film rooms has made him a favorite of Barnes this season.
"I think with Kyle, what you see with him and what you like about him as a coaching staff is he listens. He wants to do it," Barnes said. "There's a lot of things that he's done well for a guy that's only played two years, but he knows he's got a long way to go. He's got to still develop a real feel for the game offensively. As he gets stronger, it's going to change so much of how he plays. The fact is, he wants to be a good basketball player. He wants to be a great teammate, and he's willing to put in the time that you have to do to not only do that, but be a good student, too. He takes it very seriously. Everything about Kyle Alexander, he takes very seriously."
Barnes admits his freshman project is probably helping the team more than he'd like. A combination of neccesity and potential, though, has kept him on the floor despite not having eye-popping numbers. Alexander runs the floor extremely well and is aggressive around the glass — two great qualities in a transition offense that relies partially on pace.
"We thought we would get some more out of some other guys on the front line that we haven't," Barnes said. "What he's done, and the reason he's played — it's not like he's been, you look at his numbers, overwhelming there — it's just that he's trying to do what we need done at that position. That's what you like about him. He's really trying to do the things we ask that we think it's going to take to win."
What does it take to win in a competitive SEC conference with as much parity as any league in college basketball? A big post presence for starters, something Tennessee severly lacks but is hoping to bring out of the constantly-growing Alexander.
"I'm working right now on (becoming) a low-post presence, working on my shot around the basket," he said. "That's where our team needs something right now is somebody they can throw the ball into on the inside. I've been making an impact defensively a little bit right now, so if I can add some on the offensive end, I can really help contribute to the team a little bit more."
Alexander has also been the beneficiary of candid criticism from his coach, who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Barnes' post-game press conferences can be brutally honest, but the freshman appreciates his coach's critiques and handles them better than you'd expect from a young freshman.
"It's always good to hear what the coaches have to say after a game because you're trying to improve," he said. "Getting good criticism, bad criticism from a coach after a game is almost like watching film. You get to hear what was going through (Coach Barnes') mind right after the game, his honest thoughts. The coaches are always really honest with their opinions right after the games when it's fresh in their minds, so I'm always listening to what he has to say and I'm always taking that into account when I go into the next game."
The Vols travel to Lexington on Thursday to take on a streaking Kentucky team that has won three straight games since falling to Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena Feb. 2, a game in which Alexander notched one rebound in 12 minutes. Since then, Alexander has started every game on Tenenssee's schedule and looks to continue impressing his coach so he can stay in the lineup and develop into a player that Rick Barnes doesn't hope he can count on, but one Barnes knows he can.
"I think that it's kind of shown me that the coaches have faith in me and have faith in my abilities and what I can be and in what I'm doing right now," Alexander said. "I just have to keep working not to let them down. (I've been) trying to stay in the gym and just make sure I come out every game with the mindset that I need to do something special so that the coaches don't lose their trust in me."