Duke Crews, a 6-7, 233-pound sophomore, is a vital part of Tennessee's inside game. He's the Vols' most physical post player. He's the Vols' most aggressive post player. He's the Vols' toughest post player, mentally and physically. And he's so enthusiastic about crashing the boards that his spirit infuses his teammates.
Crews burned a towering Arkansas front line for 11 points and 11 rebounds Wednesday night as the Vols notched an impressive 93-71 triumph. It was his best performance of the season but he wasn't inclined to gloat.
"It was big for our team," he said. "We needed it, as far as rebounding. One of the things Coach (Bruce Pearl) stressed this week in practice was finishing around the basket. We worked hard on it all week, and we were able to do it."
Tennessee's inside game missed Crews a lot more than most observers expected during his nine-game absence. Now that he's back in action he is shedding the rust and improving on a game-by-game basis.
"Duke is definitely coming," Pearl said. "He's catching it and scoring around the basket. It's a huge part of what we've got to do. We've got to keep putting it inside and keeping ‘em honest on the inside."
Crews' tenacity on the inside has rubbed off on teammate Wayne Chism, who contributed 15 points and 5 rebounds Wednesday night. Clearly, Crews is providing a tremendous spark off the bench. It's a role he relishes.
"Definitely," he said. "Everybody plays that role on our team at some point in time. I play that role a lot because of the way I play. What JaJuan (Smith) and Tyler (Smith) did at the beginning of the second half – that was really a big spot for us – but everybody has their time playing that spot. I just get it more often than not."
Although Crews adds considerable energy to the lineup, his greatest contribution is his sheer toughness. He is Tennessee's most physical player by far. Since Crews returned to active duty, fellow sophomore Chism has become more physical, as well.
"We didn't understand at first how physical the college game would be," Crews said. "We were ready for it but we had to learn how to play it. That was the big difference."
At 6-7, Crews was dwarfed a bit Wednesday by Arkansas's 7-0 Steven Hill, 6-10 Darian Townes and 6-10 Michael Washington. He was highly motivated, though, after hearing Pearl rave about the Razorbacks' big men all week.
"Yeah, when they tell you you're playing a great front line with potential pros you've got to get up for those games," Crews said. "That's the level we all want to play at. You've got a couple of guys on that team that are going to be first-team or second-team All-SEC selections. When it's really a challenge, we like to step up."
No Vol has managed to "step up" in recent weeks more so than Duke Crews. His energy level – always high – has skyrocketed now that he has been allowed to return to the team following the six-week layoff.
"The game means a whole lot more now," he said somberly. "You never know when it's going to be taken away from you, so I go out there and try to play every play like it's going to be my last."