Vols turn to Canadian connection to fortify frontcourt

Length has been one of college basketball’s buzzwords the last few years, referring not necessarily just to height, but wingspan, all the better to close off passing lanes, block shots and keep quicker offensive players from getting where they want to go on the floor. So length is good, but tack a little modifier in front of it, and it’s even better.

Athletic length.

Not since the days of Isiah Victor and Marcus Haislip—both in the vicinity of 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds—about 15 years ago has Tennessee’s basketball program had as much athletic length as it does now. But whereas Haislip was a native Tennessean and Victor was from just over the state line in Kentucky, the Vols had to go a long way north—to Canada—to find that commodity.

This is not to suggest that 6-8, 240-pound sophomore Ray Kasongo and 6-9, 215-pound Kyle Alexander will be the next Victor and Haislip, the latter of whom became an NBA Draft lottery pick in basically one semester. But the two things they represent—a connection to a burgeoning basketball hotbed that in recent years has produced Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett, Jamal Murray and many others, and down-the-road potential, could make them more valuable than Victor and Haislip—both underutilized by then-coach Jerry Green—were ever allowed to become.

In the near term, Kasongo and Alexander were must gets by Barnes and his staff, led by the crafty veteran Rob Lanier, who turned a playing career at St. Bonaventure into a Canadian recruiting connection once he became a coach. Both players were recruited by Texas when Barnes coached there, but both would have had to get in line behind the length that had been stockpiled—the Longhorns, from the top of their roster to the bottom, were on average taller last season than even Kentucky.

So had Barnes stayed at Texas, Kasongo and Alexander might not have joined him there. But when he switched shades of orange and turned up in Knoxville, it didn’t take him and his staff long to figure out the Vols desperately needed size, especially after the departures of former coach Donnie Tyndall recruits Willie Carmichael (now at Western Kentucky) and Tariq Owens (who transferred to St. John’s).

Suffice it to say the Vols got the better end of that trade. Watching Kasongo and Alexander on the court, it’s quickly apparent they’re different, special even. Kasongo, say the Tennessee coaches, has next-level athleticism to go with a 7-4 wingspan. Alexander matches that wingspan and he’s already a more polished offensive player than his countryman, despite the fact Kasongo spent a year in junior college.

All that said, both players have a long way to go before the exacting Barnes can get what he needs from them. But both will play anyway. Barnes has no choice.

“Ray’s athleticism is elite,” associate head coach Lanier said. “But his feel for the game, his knowledge, his experience … there’s a big gap between that and his physical tools. Who knows where the growth could take him? He needs to get time under his belt before anything crystallizes.

“Ray’s smart enough, and he knows how hard he has to work. That’s the internal struggle of being able to push yourself consistently, to be able to play at a high effort level all the time. He doesn’t have quite the motor Kyle does, but he has it in spurts.”

Alexander’s motor is evident. In a recent film session with the media, Barnes replayed over and over again a play where Alexander, outrunning everyone on the floor in transition, scored an uncontested layup after a perfect pass from converted point guard Kevin Punter. Alexander can run and jump all day, and he’s got a bit of skill, too.

“He has a knack for scoring the ball, and a knack for layup making,” Tennessee assistant Chris Ogden said. “He knows how to get angles, and how to get the ball up and score. He’s just a good layup maker.”

Alexander’s issue is strength, or the lack thereof. In practice, during box-out drills, Alexander can be routinely pushed around by much smaller teammates. With the rugged Southeastern Conference schedule just months away, that will have to change.

Well-traveled Kasongo finds a home

No one on the Tennessee staff is expecting miracles from two players who are still relative newcomers to the game. Their stories are remarkably similar.

For Kasongo, whose family moved from the Republic of the Congo to Montreal to Toronto, didn’t play sports growing up and might not have unless his high school basketball coach spotted him roaming the halls.

“My coaches told me I should try to play basketball, and that I’d be really good at it,” Kasongo said. “So my freshman year, I kind of picked up on basketball, and I began to get better and better. That’s when I decided to take it more seriously.”

By the time Kasongo was a sophomore, he was faced with a life-altering decision. An opportunity to continue his basketball career in the United States presented itself. That called for a family meeting.

“We all sat down and spoke about it,” Kasongo said, “and my parents told me that I have a big opportunity to do something special, that one day I’d get a good education from a pretty good school if I would take it seriously. That’s when I first thought I could do something special with this.”

Kasongo spent the 2013-14 season at Phase 1 Academy in Phoenix, Ariz. before heading to Kentucky, where in his only season playing for Pikeville High School he averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds and 5.5 blocked shots. Kasongo had also showcased his skills playing for the Grassroots Canada AAU program, and had his pick of upper-major U.S. colleges. He chose Oregon, but an eligibility issue forced him to the College of Southern Idaho, where last season he averaged 6.0 points, 4.9 boards and 2.2 blocks in just 15.6 minutes per game.

“A lot of times when you say JUCO, maybe people overlook you,” said Kasongo, who’s fluent in French, his first language, and English. “But for me, it was good. I went there, got better, played for a good coach, and now I’m here. I’m thankful for the time I spent there. I learned a lot, and I feel like I’m ready.”

There’s no question Kasongo has some tools.

“When he first got here, what stood out was how athletic he was at his size,” Ogden said. “But it didn’t necessarily translate to getting things done on the basketball court. Now, he’s in better position to block shots, better position to get an offensive rebound, and better position to get a drop-off dunk.

“We ask each of our guys to do what they do great. And he’s a great athlete. Ray’s got to learn how to make that great athleticism effective and concentrate on that. And within that, he could become a good offensive player if he runs the floor, gets put-backs and rolls on pick-and-rolls. Those positions in the NBA are getting $80 million right now. He’s a crazy athlete, but it doesn’t translate. Not yet.”

Alexander learned to love basketball

Alexander didn’t play high school basketball until his sophomore year in high school, ironic because his father Joseph was a star player at Niagara and his sister Kayla became the all-time leading scorer at Syracuse and a first-round WNBA Draft pick. Alexander played soccer and volleyball, but basketball didn’t enter the picture, mainly because his father didn’t force it on him.

“I was never that guy who wanted to go out and shoot hoops,” Alexander said. “My mom was always getting on my dad. ‘He’s so tall. He’s got such good mobility. Why don’t you make him play?’ And my dad was like, ‘No. I’m going to wait until he comes to me.’ ”

If Joseph Alexander had stuck to that plan, his son might be playing college volleyball somewhere. But after discovering a skills camp about a 30-minute drive from the family home, the elder Alexander decided it was time his son started learning the finer points of hoops.

“I really respect my dad,” Alexander said. “So I bought into it and said, ‘OK, I’m going to give it a chance.’ I went to the skills academy. The first day they’re doing layup drills, something you’d think was so simple. And I can’t make a left-hand layup. I can’t do the footwork. I spent an hour and a half working on a left-hand layup. It bothered me that I couldn’t do that, and some of those kids that were younger than me were moving on.

“When I got back home, I told my dad to come outside and just break it down for me. It was really bothering me. I don’t like being behind people. I want to compete.”

Thus a basketball player was born. Playing for Orangeville Prep in Ontario with the likes of Kentucky freshman Jamal Murray was an invaluable part of Alexander’s evolution as a player and gave him exposure to U.S. college coaches.

Tapping into potential

Lanier remembers the first time he saw Alexander.

“I didn’t know at the time how young he was in the game,” Lanier said. “But my initial thought was he hadn’t been playing very long. He was raw, but he played with effort. I just saw the upside. He’s long. He can run effortlessly. He’s got a motor.

“By the time I learned more about him, the family history and all of that, it just made sense that you’re seeing something here that could really blossom.”

During summer drills and early into fall practice, Alexander exceeded the Tennessee staff’s expectations.

“Kyle in the summer was pretty significantly ahead of where we anticipated,” Lanier said. “So much so we probably got ahead of ourselves. Since then he’s hit a wall. He’s a freshman. That wall has brought him back to where we thought he could be. We always thought he was going to be good, because of his effort and motor and coach-ability. He was moving along at a rapid pace. The grind, like it does with a lot of freshman, kind of got on his back a little bit. But he’s figuring out how to embrace the ups and downs that come with the game.”

It helps that Kasongo and Alexander have intelligence to go with their physical gifts and are willing pupils. Both turned themselves over to new strength coach Garrett Medenwald, whose unique training regimen has already produced results. Alexander quickly added 20 pounds of muscle, and Kasongo talks of making his way to 255 while improving his already prodigious athleticism.

“My dad always told me that one thing he admired about my sister was her work ethic,” Alexander said. “That if he had the same work ethic, he might have been able to play pro ball. He told me not to have the same regrets he had, to work hard.

“And I’ve been working. The coaches here have been great. Their goal for me is to not just be an in-the-paint guy. They want to progressively move me out father and farther as the years go on. But I have to prove I can make those shots, and put in the work to get there.”

Kasongo, too, is working on a midrange face-up game, to go along with a jump hook he can shoot with either hand. But he knows his strengths, and how he can help the Vols right away.

“Shot blocking,” Kasongo said. “Grabbing rebounds. Bringing a lot of energy. Running up and down the court. Being physical.

“My specialties right now are on defense. But I feel like I’m a lot quicker than I used to be. My footwork is better. And I feel like I’m a lot smarter. Having coach Barnes and his staff working with me every day, I feel like I’ve gotten a whole lot smarter.”

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