Old school Punter’s position change key to Tennessee’s season

KNOXVILLE—The American Heritage Dictionary describes the term old school as “adhering or conforming to an earlier or original style.” Wikipedia says “the term is commonly used to suggest a high regard for something that has been shown to have lasting value or quality.” The Oxford Dictionary says old school is “used, usually approvingly, to refer to someone or something that is old fashioned or traditional.”

Tennessee guard Kevin Punter has been branded old school for as long as he can remember, which is why, when a writer brought it up to him during the Vols’ media day on Thursday, he laughed and nodded his head.

“I’ve been hearing that a lot,” Punter said. “People will say, ‘aw man, you’ve got an old-school game. Old school. That whole midrange game and the pull-up jumper. I definitely take that as a compliment. It’s a part of my game. I’ve been scoring that way all my life.”

In an age where dunks and 3-point shots are all young players seem to care about, the pull-up J has gone the way of canvas high tops and short shorts, neither utilized much by players or particularly insisted upon by coaches.

So how did Punter become old school? It was a matter of survival. Growing up in the Bronx, where the pickup games can be brutal tests of survival to avoid sitting around all day waiting to get into the action, Punter learned that, at 6-foot-4 and a spindly 160 pounds, getting to the rim wasn’t the wisest course of action, or even the most realistic.

“I couldn’t always get to the rim,” Punter said. “So I would have no choice but to just pull up. I can’t get to the basket, so let me start pulling up. I started really working on that area, the 12- to 15-footers. That’s when I started the one-dribble pull-up, stop on a dime, things like that.”

After a season at a prep school and a couple more in junior college, Punter comes to the Vols as a polished scorer with good height and length for his position. In addition to his midrange handiwork, he can step back and shoot 3s. And thanks to some determined work in the weight room, he’s even added 20 pounds to about 183, “not that you could tell it,” Punter said with another laugh.

Punter was ticketed for the Southeastern Conference, one way or the other. He committed to Missouri when Frank Haith was the coach, but when Haith, feeling pressure from a disgruntled fan base, took the unusual step of bolting for a job in a lesser conference (Tulsa), Punter was on the move again.

Luckily for Tennessee, Tyndall had recruited Punter before, when he was the coach at Morehead State.

“He was in prep school,” Tyndall said. “We went down and saw him play, liked him and were going to bring him to campus. But there was a little snag in his transcript and he wound up not qualifying. He had to go to junior college.”

In two years at State Fair (Mo.) Community College, Punter turned himself into a player worthy of a power conference scholarship. Last season he earned first-team NJCAA All-America honors after averaging 20.3 points and shooting 57 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3. His 1.7 assists per game proved he was capable of more than just scoring.

Punter was ready to finish his career in the state of Missouri, but Haith’s abrupt departure opened opportunity at Tennessee, where Tyndall was looking to rebuild sixty percent of his team after the departure of four starters and two would-be sophomores who left along with former coach Cuonzo Martin. Neither Tyndall nor Punter envisioned the kind of opportunity that awaited Punter. If the season began tomorrow, Punter, the old-school scorer, would be the Vols’ starting point guard.

A lot had to happen for Punter to assume the position. Tyndall didn’t want to take one of his best scorers and saddle him with the additional burden of facilitating offense for others. But after the defection of Darius Thompson (Virginia), some recruiting near misses, and an injury to walk-on Brandon Lopez, who was ticketed for significant minutes, Tyndall needed a point guard.

Punter stepped up.

“It’s a challenge,” Punter said. “But I don’t run from challenges. And my teammates have been helpful; they know it’s a new position for me. The coaches have given me tips about playing the position. I feel like I’ve become more vocal and I know where everybody should be. I feel like I’ve been doing a pretty good job at it, and I’m ready to take on the position.”

Tyndall and his staff agree.

“He’s just a tough kid who goes about his business the right way,” assistant coach Adam Howard said. “He’s willingly done everything we’ve asked of him.”

“He handles his business like a pro,” Tyndall said. “And he’s been a sponge. When you challenge him or get on him, he doesn’t pout and feel sorry for himself. He’s great in the film room; asks questions. He wants to get better. I love that.”

Since he first stepped on campus in June, Punter has steadily worked his way toward his new job. Those 20 extra pounds have been key; whereas before he may have been bumped off line by bigger, stronger SEC-level players, or worse, been bullied as he tried to defend them, now he has the strength to hang in there.

Punter has also gotten used to a higher level of play, a big reason Tyndall has entrusted him with the task of running the team.

“I.Q,” Punter said when asked where he had improved the most during his short stay in Knoxville. “Being smart. Taking your time. At this level, you can really get sped up easily, because everybody’s athletic. Sometimes you have to relax a little bit, move at your own pace, and you’ll be fine.”