How Tyreke Key used Tennessee's loaded preseason to regain his rhythm

How Tyreke Key used Tennessee’s loaded preseason to regain his rhythm

FRISCO, Texas— Tennessee coaches had a message for Tyreke Key at halftime on Sunday’s closed scrimmage against Michigan State at Thompson-Boling Arena. They brought in the graduate-transfer from Indiana State to score the ball.

In the opening 20 minutes against the Spartans, he wouldn’t shoot it. Not once.

“He didn’t attempt a shot,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “He was just out there moving the ball. We actually asked him what are you doing?”

Key had an explanation, though.

“In his own innocent way,” Barnes said, “he said I haven’t played in a year and a half, I’m just getting a feel for it.”

A shoulder injury sidelined him last season at Indiana State. His last appearance was in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament semifinals against Loyola Chicago in March 2021, when he scored 11 points in 39 minutes.

Jumping back in, and doing so against Michigan State, required some settling in.

“I was a deer in headlights out there, especially the first half,” Key said. “They were begging me to shoot it. I was kind of just shocked every time I touched the ball. I kind of got my feel back going in the second half of that game.

“And that was kind of a good game for me to get myself adjusted again, back in my rhythm.”

Key didn’t need long to find his rhythm Friday night against No. 2 Gonzaga in the Legends of Basketball Classic inside Comerica Center, helping No. 11 Tennessee light up the Zags in a head-turning 99-80 win. He scored a team-high 26 points off the bench, going 8-for-12 from the field, 4-for-7 from the 3-point line and 6 of 7 at the foul line.

“It’s my first game in probably a year and a half,” Key said. “My first real game in front of people. The last game I played was the COVID year. Obviously I didn’t play last year, I got hurt. But it felt good to be out there with the team. It was really fun.”

Key scored a team-high 16 points in the first half, hitting threes on three consecutive possessions. He was just as good after halftime.

“He looked very relaxed tonight, he really did,” Barnes said. “We’ve seen him do it. We knew he has the ability to get going. We’ve watched him do it all summer.”

That was the buzz out of Pratt Pavilion over the offseason. The Vols had gotten a steal out of the transfer portal. A quiet, steady veteran out of Celina, Tenn., who could score it all three levels, despite flying under the radar in his second recruitment.

It’s been no surprise for Barnes to see Key succeed so far.

“Not really,” he said, “when you can put the ball in the basket. And, first of all, he came from a level that is extremely good. The Missouri Valley is a great basketball league. You see so many of those guys that have transferred up that have done well.”

It’s more than just new scenery for Key. He’s coming off the bench for the first time in his career, after averaging 32.4 minutes per game in his four seasons at Indiana State.

He’s spent time at point guard over the summer, too, after averaging 14.6 points to just 1.7 assists over his 114 games with the Sycamores.

Key is fine with wherever Barnes puts him and with whatever this Tennessee coaching staff asks of him.

“I don’t have no problem with it,” Key said of the sixth man role. “I’m just here to do whatever I can to play a role and help the team. Whatever that role is, I’m going to do the best of my abilities. If that’s coming off the bench, I’ll do it. I’ll just come in and play as hard as I can.”

“I feel comfortable with it,” Key said of his minutes at point guard. “I ain’t got no problem with it. It’s whatever they want me to do, I’ll do it to the best of my abilities.”

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Now what’s next, after dropping 26 points against the No. 2 team in the country?

The soft-spoken Key downplayed that question, too, while looking ahead to the regular-season opener on November 7 against Tennessee Tech.

“Just come in every day and get better,” he said. “I think we’ve got 10 days until the next game. Come in every day and work hard like we usually do, like another day in the office. Get better and improve. Get ready to tip the season off.”

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