KNOXVILLE — Tennessee guard Antonio Barton lost his starting spot and his shooting touch during a difficult senior season, but the Memphis transfer finally is back on the upswing.
His resurgence comes just in time to help his new team make a late push for an NCAA tournament bid.
After returning to the Tennessee (18-11, 9-7 SEC) starting lineup last week, Barton had a season-high 21 points and a career-high six assists Saturday in a 76-38 blowout of Vanderbilt. Barton will attempt to carry that momentum into Wednesday’s game at Auburn (13-14, 5-11).
“The main focus is to let this game go,” Barton said after the Vanderbilt game. “We played well but we can’t carry this game on. It is over with. We just have to come in and lock in for the next game with the same intensity and same focus.”
Tennessee is trying to make the best of its precarious postseason prospects. As his team tried to recover from an overtime loss at Texas A&M, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin played “One Shining Moment” for his team last week and showed the Vols a mock NCAA tournament bracket from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi that still had them making the field.
“It’s a great feeling when you hear that song and have that opportunity, and I want our guys to have that,” Martin said.
Tennessee might have secured an NCAA bid by now if Barton had played this well all season. When Barton’s at his best, the Vols are a different team.
Barton has scored as many as 14 points against a Division I opponent three times this season. Tennessee won those three games by an average margin of 30.3 points.
And those games didn’t come against pushovers. Barton scored 14 points each in a 68-50 victory at LSU and an 87-52 rout of Virginia, which is now ranked fifth in the nation.
Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes calls Barton the Vols’ “X factor.”
“When he is playing well, it opens up so many things,” Stokes said. “If we are playing pickup, he will play like he did (against Vanderbilt), every game. That’s what I tell him, go out there and treat it like a pickup game.”
But he hasn’t always played that well.
Barton shot 11 of 54 overall and 3 of 29 from 3-point range during a recent nine-game stretch in which Tennessee went 4-5. This wasn’t what Barton anticipated when he transferred from Memphis for his final year of eligibility.
Martin praised Barton for staying positive after freshman Darius Thompson replaced him in the starting lineup in late January.
“I thought he handled it like a true professional,” Martin said.
Barton moved back into the starting lineup last week. In his first game back as a starter, Barton shot just 1 of 6 in a 75-68 victory at Mississippi State, but Martin liked the way he ran the offense.
Barton then shot 5 of 7 from 3-point range against Vanderbilt.
“I think he was being a lot more aggressive,” Tennessee guard Josh Richardson said. “I feel like if his first couple of shots fall, that changes his whole game.”
Over his last two games, Barton has 10 assists and only two turnovers. But it’s his shooting that could really make a difference for Tennessee if he stays hot.
“For me, I just have to keep shooting the ball,” Barton said Saturday. “Whether I miss two or three in a row, I just have to keep shooting.”comments powered by Disqus