The weak links in UT's lineup have been the post and small forward spots, which makes Andre Patterson a crucial piece of the puzzle. The 6-7 senior is the top reserve at the post AND small forward positions.
Tennessee's starting post, 6-10 Major Wingate, had an off night Saturday against Florida. He sank just 2 of 7 field goal tries, while recording more fouls (4) and turnovers (3) than rebounds (2) in 21 unproductive minutes. Small forward Stanley Asumnu played even worse, going 0 for 3 from the floor with 1 rebound and 3 turnovers in 12 counter-productive minutes.
Given the struggles of Wingate and Asumnu, getting them off the floor and Patterson onto it may have been Bruce Pearl's best coaching move of the evening. Patterson was so active in the first half – 4 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block and 1 steal in nine minutes – that he opened the second half in Asumnu's spot.
"We started Andre the second half, almost as a gesture to reward him for his play," Pearl explained.
Patterson promptly rewarded the coach's gesture by playing so well that he stayed on the floor 19 of the game's final 20 minutes. His second-half line: 8 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists. He also provided some excellent interior defense on 6-8, 235-pound Al Horford as the Vols rallied to win 80-76.
"I thought he played with courage and confidence," Pearl said of Patterson, "and was a difference-maker for us athletically."
Patterson admitted that getting to start the second half gave him a lift.
"I've been adjusting to coming off the bench but I've always been a quick starter," he said. "If I get a couple of rebounds it gets me going, gets me in a rhythm. When he started me the second half I got in the rhythm of the game, and it showed on the floor."
Over the past four games Asumnu has recorded 34 points, 13 rebounds and 10 turnovers. Over the same span Patterson has recorded 39 points, with twice as many rebounds (26) and half as many turnovers (5).
Pearl clearly likes continuity. The new coach has changed his lineup just once all season, inserting Patterson for Wingate Dec. 27 vs. Alabama A&M when the latter was late returning from Christmas break. The way Patterson's going, however, he may leave Pearl no choice but to shuffle his lineup again.
Sophomore guard JaJuan Smith also has been making a determined bid for a starting job but two factors weigh more heavily in Patterson's favor:
First, Patterson's greatest strength (rebounding) coincides with the Vols' greatest weakness.
Second, Smith's enthusiasm provides an incredible spark off the bench, and the Vols will lose that energy boost if JaJuan starts.