Some untimely injuries to Willliams enabled Crews to move ahead of the towering freshman and some determined work on the backboards enabled Crews to move ahead of Chism. Thus, the 6-7, 233-pound Crews zoomed from third-team to first-team in a span of three weeks. He celebrated his first start of 2007-08 with a 10-point, 9-rebound, 2-steal effort against Louisiana-Lafayette last Friday.
"Duke Crews has really played well in his return," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "His plus-minus numbers are high. He's brought a physicality to the court – defensively and rebounding."
Something else Crews has brought may be just as important: He has brought out the best in teammate Tyler Smith, who had a 22-point, 7-rebound, 8-assist game on Friday.
"Tyler Smith has played well with Duke Crews on the court," Pearl noted. "Is that because of Duke Crews? I don't know. He's done nothing but play well with consistency since he's been back. I'm trying to reward that, and I think it's a good combination – those two playing together."
The only problem with starting Smith and Crews in tandem is that it leaves one of Tennessee's most talented players, Chism, on the bench. Pearl concedes as much, noting that his praise of Crews is "not to say Wayne Chism hasn't played well or doesn't bring a tremendous dimension to our basketball team with his versatility."
Although Crews' dedication to defense and rebounding earned him a starting job, he also benefited from a little luck.
"If Brian Williams doesn't go knee-to-knee on a Friday, then get a hip pointer on a Sunday … Duke Crews might not play in New York (Nov. 23 vs. West Virginia and Nov. 24 vs. Texas) because Brian had won the position," Pearl said. "But the injury to Brian Williams opened the door for Duke, and Duke just took advantage of it."
Considering how much preseason work he missed, Crews' rapid rise to the starting lineup is pretty amazing … even to his coach.
"He had a full month off in the preseason, including a few weeks of regular practice time," Pearl noted. "That set Duke back terrifically. But Duke had a good summer and he played well overseas in Europe. It's obviously good to have him back."
Crews' supplanting of Chism wasn't Tennessee's only lineup change to date, of course. Senior Jordan Howell replaced sophomore Ramar Smith as the No. 1 point guard three games into the season and has been starting ever since.
"We're still in the process of trying some different things," Pearl said. "As coaches, you have to continue to develop your personnel. Sometimes through energy, sometimes through practice, sometimes through the level of play, you keep working the thing."
The Vol coach is fond of gridiron analogies, so he deftly compared his recent personnel changes to the ones UT football coach Phillip Fulmer made en route to the SEC East title.
"Look at our football team," Pearl said. "There were a lot of guys out there Saturday (in the SEC Championship Game) playing a lot of great football that weren't playing at Cal."
Based on the toughness he has displayed this season, Duke Crews probably could've been one of them.