Pearl was the main event, but Vols’ Moore was the main man in win over Auburn
KNOXVILLE — The main event when Auburn played at Tennessee on Saturday had been anticipated for months—the return of former Vol coach Bruce Pearl. But that was largely an off-the-court spectacle. True, Pearl’s coaching decisions would influence the way the game would be played, but he couldn’t step over the lines and actually make a play.
That being the case, Saturday’s main on-the-court event was the continuing story of Tennessee junior Armani Moore. At first, it was a novelty when Moore, recruited by former Vol coach Cuonzo Martin as a point guard, began playing power forward for Martin’s replacement Donnie Tyndall. Martin had learned quickly that Moore was no point guard, but that he was a maker of big plays—a blocked shot here, a steal there, maybe a put-back basket over a 7-footer.
Yet for all his potential to influence games, Moore was used sporadically—if not erratically—for two seasons by Martin, 13.2 minutes per game as a freshman, 12.9 a year ago. It turns out Tyndall thought he had landed Moore when he became Southern Miss coach in the spring of 2012, but at the last minute the power conference school swooped in and grabbed him away. Tyndall was disappointed, but he never considered Moore as a point guard at the college level. Rather, Tyndall thought Moore was a guy more versatile than a pair of khakis, someone who could play two or three positions and be effective enough to influence games.
Tyndal and Moore were finally able to join forces when Martin abruptly bolted for the California job and Tyndall was hired to replace him. And when it became apparent that the young post players Martin and his staff were able to scramble and sign in a wild month of recruiting last spring were either too frail or offensively challenged to make major contributions, and the one who was strong and mobile enough—Jabari McGhee—broke his foot and was lost, probably for the season, after nine games, Martin knew where Moore would be logging the bulk of his minutes (30.7 per game so far).
Moore is listed at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds. The 215 part, that’s easy to verify. Moore looks like the village blacksmith, or a strong safety who wandered onto the wrong playing field. In the NBA combine, they make potential draft picks lift 185 pounds. Anywhere around 15 repetitions is an impressive number. Moore has hoisted 185 17 times, high among his teammates.
But here’s where Moore’s full-time conversion to power forward begins to boggle the mind. Without shoes, he’s probably closer to 6-3 than 6-5. He’s got long arms but not Plastic Man limbs. He jumps, but he’s not Michael Qualls.
So how the heck did Moore scored 19 points and grab a career-high 13 rebounds—both game highs—to go with a couple of blocked shots and two steals, against Auburn and its inside combination of burly Cinmeon Bowers, the SEC’s leading rebounder, and 7-footer Trayvon Reed?
“He’s relentless,” said Tennessee junior guard Kevin Punter. “Relentless. He’s like that in practice. It’s nothing new for him. Every time he steps on that court, he’s gonna go hard.”
“When you come out and play that hard every night,” said point guard Josh Richardson, who like Moore is playing out of position, “there’s not a lot of guys who will match that.”
Moore is beginning to put up numbers not unlike a 6-8, 245-pound McDonald’s All-American four man. His first double-double of the year was an 18-point, 13-rebound effort against Marquette. He proved that double-figure rebounding game was no fluke when he grabbed 11 boards against Tennessee State. The next game he went for 13 and 12 against East Tennessee State. When the Vols won at Missouri, Moore was a key reason with his 15-point, 11-rebound contribution. The double-double against Auburn was his fourth of the season.
Moore’s turning up all over SEC statistics, too—ninth in the league in rebounding and offensive rebounding. Seventh in steals. Tied for 10th in league games only in blocked shots. When he has to score—and the Vols needed every one of his 19 points to beat Auburn, 71-63 and spoil Pearl’s homecoming—Moore finds a way to put the ball in the basket.
How does he do it?
“Toughness,” Tyndall said. “There’s no other way to say it. He’s a good athlete, but not a great athlete. He’s just tough and gritty, and has a burning desire to win. There are guys out there like that. Not the best athlete, not the best player, but just the best competitor.”
Moore must be a pretty good teammate, too. He’s a co-captain along with his roommate Richardson, but his leadership is more by example. He spends the first 25 minutes of every practice working on post moves, and even at his size, he’s starting to grab post-entry passes, spin to the basket and score.
“When he takes his time and gets to the middle of the paint, he’s pretty efficient,” Punter said. “When he makes the shot, makes pretty good post moves, I’m not surprised by that. I see it in practice every day.”
Typical of Moore, he downplays his accomplishments and his conversion to the SEC’s smallest power forward.
“Over the years, I’ve played several different positions,” he said. “So this isn’t new to me. It’s all about whatever I can do to help my team win. Whatever they need me to do, I’m willing to do it.”
Even if it means out-dueling players 30-40 pounds heavier and six to eight inches taller?
“I’ll tell anybody this,” Moore said. “You can do anything you want, if you have the right mentality.”
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