With the demoralizing loss at Missouri over the weekend, there's a fear many will lose interest in Tennessee's season. The Vols fell to 12-13 (5-7) and, with an RPI sinking to the 120s after becoming just the second team to lose to Mizzou in conference play, now find their NIT hopes in unrealistic territory. As happened at the tail end of last season, you reach a point where it's just as much of a stretch to believe this team can win four games in four days in the SEC Tournament as it is to construct a scenario to get back in NIT range in RPI (in this case going 4-2 the rest of the way home, then winning at least one game in Nashville, then hoping for minimal upsets in low/mid-major conference tournaments).
Last year when interest waned it seemed unfair for Josh Richardson, a selfless senior who was putting the finishing touches on what has become a role-playing spot as an NBA rookie. This year it's Kevin Punter in the dwindling spotlight, and once again someone who would receive much more publicity on a winning team is instead quietly in the background.
Punter averages 22.3 points per game, 10th in the nation in scoring and fourth best among major conference players. What's more, if Punter simply stays north of 21.1 points per game by season's end, he will turn in the best single season scoring performance at UT since Allan Houston, who also had 22.3 per game in 1993 and 23.7 in 1991.
Consider all the names who have come in the 20+ years between Houston and Punter, especially those coming in the program's most successful run in the last decade. Punter already separated himself when he scored 36 points in the Vols' win over South Carolina, the most any Vol had scored in conference play since Houston. While no Tennessee player has had anything close to the NBA career Houston enjoyed since then, there are plenty of names who had successful college careers you assume would be north of Punter on the scoring list.
But since Houston only two Vols have averaged 20+ points per game before Punter: Ron Slay in 2003 (21.1) and Chris Lofton in 2007 (20.8). Steve Hamer, Vincent Yarbrough, and Jordan McRae each averaged just over 18 points per game in their best seasons.
Punter also fits Houston's mold in playing on a below average team. His best scoring year in 1991 came on a 12-22 team, and the Vols were 13-17 in 1993. The Vols did make the NIT in Houston's other two years. Better teams typically come with more options; in Chris Lofton's best year in 2007 his 20.8 points per game were just 26% of Tennessee's total scoring. Punter is currently putting in 29% of Tennessee's points; in this measure what he's doing is slightly behind Ron Slay's 2003 SEC Player of the Year season, when he scored 31% of the Vols' points (and grabbed 7.8 rebounds per game) on what should have been an NCAA Tournament team.
Punter has had a few advantages. Rick Barnes has the Vols playing a faster tempo, and deserves all kinds of credit for changing Punter's shot and bumping him from 10.3 points per game to the second leading scorer in the SEC. Punter is also playing 34.1 minutes per game, the most since C.J. Watson in the Buzz Peterson administration. While Slay also played 34 minutes per game in 2003, Lofton played just 29.6 minutes in 2007.
And, to his credit, Punter has been tremendous in taking advantage of the new rules this season in defenders creating contact, drawing a number of fouls with his drive and body lean. Punter is 12th in the nation in free throws made, his scoring average helped by more than six points per game from the free throw line. Shooting 81.3% from the stripe will help the average too.
Punter probably won't turn any NBA heads and may join most of the other Vol greats of the last ten years in Europe. And if Barnes' teams continue to push the pace, who knows who else will come out of nowhere to score 20+ points per game for the Vols in the future. But when we look back in the space between Tennessee's last NBA All-Star and whoever comes next, right now we'll see Punter's name next to the best scoring average during that time. He's had an incredible year, and if there is any meaningful basketball left in Tennessee's season, you can bet Punter will be a big reason why.