When Kyle Alexander was recruited by head coach Rick Barnes back in 2015, there was little known about the tall, skinny kid out of Milton, Ontario.
Alexander's commitment came with a bit of surprise. The 6'10" 200lb forward had only been playing basketball for about 2-1/2 years prior to his arrival at Tennessee. But basketball is in his DNA. Aside from his size, he is also the younger brother of Kayla Alexander, a center for the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces.
The power forward played sparingly in 32 of 34 games during his freshman year, averaging a little over 12 mpg, but still managed to finish second on the team in blocks with 31. His sophomore season saw an uptick in both playing time and production - almost every single statistical category improved in 2016.
Most of us wondered if 2017 would be the year that Alexander finally put it all together and that seemed to be the case against Purdue. Without argument, he had his best game in orange, recording 13 points in 29 minutes on 66% shooting, while also snagging 11 boards, two steals, and making his lone three-point attempt.
It looked as if he was set to take off, but that wasn't the case. Mired by spotty play over the course of the next several games, things hit rock bottom after the Vanderbilt game in Knoxville. Alexander recorded a season-low 11 minutes in that game. His lone stat? Four fouls that helped Vandy come back from a 20-point deficit and almost steal the game back from the Vols.
This prompted Barnes to do his usual call for accountability and this time the focus was on Alexander. Barnes demanded "consistency" from Alexander, quite possibly the only factor keeping him from reaching his full potential.
Well, just a few days later, Alexander delivered what was arguably the best performance of his career against Texas A&M. He outperformed future lottery-pick Robert Williams on the way to a 75-62 win, holding Williams to just 38% shooting and a season-low in rebounds.
Alexander made it pretty clear how Barnes' message had an effect on him after the game:
"All this shows Coach Barnes is that I'm capable. I wouldn't want to play for a coach who doesn't expect anything less of me....he just needs consistency from us and that's what I want from myself too." - Kyle Alexander, forward, Vols
In the five games since the victory against A&M, Alexander has recorded at least two blocks in four of those games, has shot 12/14 from the floor, recorded 27 rebounds, and has been perfect from the line. The Vols are 4-1 in these games, outscoring their opponents around 69-58, including back-to-back 23-point victories in their latest outings.
The Vols have been in desperate need of a big man ever since Jarnell Stokes left the team after the 2013 season. Not surprisingly, that was the last time the Vols made it to the big dance.
Not only does Alexander's presence on the inside alleviate the scoring pressure on Grant Williams, but it opens things up from the outside, where the Vols have been dominating in recent games, shooting 43% from beyond the arc.
He also provides crucial defense and matchup advantages when it comes to opposing big men. He struggled last week while defending LSU center Duop Reath, but still made some huge plays including a sequence in which he had an incredible block that forced a turnover and was parlayed into an even more impressive dunk that buried the Tigers on Wednesday.
If Alexander can continue his development, then the Vols will be the team to beat in the SEC as the regular season winds down. His athleticism and size - paired with Grant Williams' overall abilities - gives the Vols a post game that is rarely matched and perfectly compliments their outside game, as well as a defender down low who can neutralize opposing big men.
It seems as if both Tennessee and Alexander are turning the corner at the right time, and even though it remains to be seen what is around said corner - something tells me it's going to be good.