KNOXVILLE — No less than a minute into the second half, Rick Barnes brought Jordan Bone over to the sideline for a chat.
The fourth-year Tennessee coach wanted to make sure the junior point guard understood what was going on. Without hesitation, Bone responded with the exact response Barnes wanted to hear.
“A year ago, he would have said ‘I’m not sure what you’re talking about,’” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “… He had a command about him and he’s more sure of what we’re looking for.”
Bone credits the command he had in the No. 6 Vols’ 86-41 season-opening victory over Lenoir -Rhyne on Tuesday inside Thompson-Boling Arena to the coaching staff pushing the point guard harder than any other player on the roster and the confidence they have entrusted in him.
It resulted in a strong performance from the Nashville native on both ends of the court. He tallied a game-high 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting while adding six rebounds, three assists and two steals.
“I feel like I got command when I got lost on the court on defense,” Bone said. “I feel like when I’m going all out on the defensive end, you just get lost in the game and it allows you to have a feel for what’s going on.”
Command is something that has eluded Bone from time to time during his Tennessee career.
At times, he has looked worthy of being on the Bob Cousy Award watch list — an honor that recognizes the nation’s top point guard — as he was this off-season. Then there are some games that he has not been what the Vols need him to be.
Bone vowed to change that after Loyola-Chicago guard Clayton Custer rattled home a game-winning shot over him in the final seconds of UT’s Round of 32 loss in the NCAA Tournament last season.
Bone has replayed that moment hundreds of times in his head and seen it on film dozens more.
It drove him to work on his game tirelessly this off-season, resulting in Barnes calling him the most improved player on the team.
“I didn’t like the way that felt, so I spent a lot of time reflecting back on the season and noticing my weaknesses,” Bone said. “That game made me want to work as hard as I can and come back with a different mindset.”
His teammates have noticed the change in practice and it has translated to the court.
A no-look pass from Bone to senior forward Kyle Alexander that resulted in a fast-break dunk in the second half against the Bears was evidence of how much confidence he has with the ball in his hands.
“When you get into your junior and senior years and start to get more trust from the coaches, you try different things in practice,” Alexander said. “He’s done some things that have had us like, ‘What the heck.’
“He’s different and it’s been crazy to watch his progression.”
That progression is key for UT if it wants to have a better ending to this season than it did a season ago, and the command he exhibited Tuesday is proof that Bone is taking steps in the right direction.
“Just to see him take over and do things when he’s really locked in makes us a whole different team,” Alexander said. “He’s definitely our x-factor.”