- Associated Press - Friday, January 31, 2014

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee has one of the most experienced teams in the Southeastern Conference, yet its postseason hopes now could depend in part on the progress of a freshman point guard.

Darius Thompson moved into the starting lineup Wednesday and had seven points and seven assists with only two turnovers in an 86-70 victory over Mississippi. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said Thompson would remain the Volunteers’ starting point guard Saturday at Alabama (9-11, 3-4 SEC).

“Freshmen are playing all over the country,” Thompson said. “It’s really no big deal.”

Thompson, a 6-foot-5 guard from Murfreesboro, Tenn., wanted this responsibility.

After verbally committing to Vanderbilt, Thompson eventually signed with Tennessee (13-7, 4-3) because he believed the Vols gave him the better chance of playing early. The only pure point guard on scholarship for Tennessee last season was Trae Golden, who has since transferred to Georgia Tech.

“I didn’t want to sit back and wait until it was my turn,” Thompson said. “I felt I had a better shot at playing here.”

As fate would have it, Thompson likely would have earned an immediate role at Vanderbilt, which is down to seven healthy scholarship players. At Tennessee, Thompson faced competition from senior Antonio Barton, who transferred from Memphis.

Thompson backed up Barton for most of the season while making a couple of spot starts. After the streaky Barton shot a combined 3 of 20 in a three-game stretch that ended with a 67-41 loss at Florida, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin changed his lineup and gave Thompson a shot.

“It was time,” Martin said.

Martin said Thompson has benefited from spending so much time around Tennessee’s upperclassmen. Thompson is the lone freshman in a starting lineup that also includes seniors Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon plus juniors Josh Richardson and Jarnell Stokes.

“He doesn’t play like a freshman,” Richardson said. “He doesn’t have a brain (of) a freshman. He’s a mature player, so we feel just as comfortable (with him) as anybody else.”

Those older players have told Thompson to shoot more frequently.

Thompson has 54 assists with only 20 turnovers this season, but he has scored in double figures just once. Thompson averages 3.1 points per game, and his five shots against Mississippi matched a season high.

“He loves to pass the ball, but he can score and he can shoot the ball,” Martin said. “When he’s doing that, he’s a threat on the floor and now you have guys that are threats to make plays.”

Thompson will have his hands full Saturday against an Alabama team that features senior guard Trevor Releford, a first-team all-SEC selection last year. Alabama should have plenty of motivation after losing 74-55 Thursday at Auburn, which had dropped 16 straight conference games.

“We have to accept accountability and then we have to move on and focus on the task ahead,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “We can’t get this one night back. This is done. It’s in the books. We have to accept it and understand what caused it, and then we’ve got to move on and get ready for our next one.”

Tennessee has lost four of its last five games with Alabama and owns a 9-26 record at Coleman Coliseum. Thompson looks forward to the challenge.

“I feel like (the Mississippi game) helped me a lot,” Thompson said. “My confidence is up right now. I’m just trying to carry it over to our next game.”

___

AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Auburn, Ala., contributed to this report.