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September 4, 2013

Barton finding comfort at his new home

Antonio Barton has always played basketball with something to prove. Something to prove to himself, something to prove to others.

After a highly publicized transfer from Memphis to Tennessee - from one bitter rival to another - little has changed, aside from the scenery, the workouts and the color of the jersey.

Barton still has plenty to prove.

"I've been playing with a chip on my shoulder all my life," Barton said Wednesday. "Guys saying I was a throw in coming into Memphis with my brother. I don't let it get me down, I just use it as motivation."

His brother is Will Barton, 11 months his senior and entering his second NBA season this fall with the Portland Trailblazers.

Barton played with older brother Will for two seasons at Memphis, but after limited minutes during his junior season - he averaged just over 16 per game - on a guard-heavy roster, he decided he needed a change of scenery.

Having graduated in three years, his options were open, as long as he didn't leave for a conference foe or a team on Memphis' 2012-13 schedule.

"It was just something I wanted to do and have a fresh start," he said.

Tennessee fit the bill. And with the departure of Trae Golden, it couldn't have been much better of a fit for either parties.

When the news of his transfer broke he heard it all, the good, the bad, everything in between.

"Everybody was shocked," Barton said. "Some people had their negative, some people had their positives. You can't listen to a lot of people. I just accepted it. You can't please everybody in life."

He had his brother, his former Memphis teammate, in his corner.

"He was happy, he was one of the biggest supporters, told me to come here. He said it was going to be a positive fit for me and I could do a lot of positive things here. So he was one of my biggest fans of coming here."

Once regarded as a sibling 'throw in' at Memphis, Barton was suddenly seen as a savior for a Tennessee basketball program in desperate need of a point guard.

"It's just something I knew I was capable of all my life," Barton said of playing that savior role. "I just was always a blue collar guy, didn't get the most publicity, but I earned everything that I got."

Barton said the style of game he's come to earn, on both ends of the court, as relying on a toughness he learned growing up in Baltimore, Md. - "I make a lot of guys better around me," he said - and it wasn't a lesson learned by choice.

"[It's] my background, the life that I grew up with," Barton said. "I had to be tough on and off the court."

It was a similar toughness - and a certain warmth - that drew him to Tennessee.

"The toughness of the coach and players," Barton said of why he chose the Vols over Texas A&M and home-state Maryland, the other two schools that made his final transfer list. "During the whole recruiting process, the players, they texted me everyday and we talked as if they knew me all their life."

Those players texting - Jordan McRae, Josh Richardson, Jeronne Maymon, among others, he noted "texted me right away saying that I've got to come here, it's a perfect opportunity" - have plenty on-court history with Barton through the last three seasons of the Tennessee-Memphis rivalry.

"What happens on the court stays on the court," Barton said. "Off the court I don't hate anybody, it was no bad blood against those guys. But on the court it was business."

In January Barton played 12 minutes and scored 5 points in a 85-80 Memphis win at Thompson-Boling Arena.

As a sophomore he played 33 minutes for the Tigers and scored 21 points in a 99-97 double-overtime win over the Vols in the Maui Invitational. Later that season he scored 19 points to lead Memphis to a 69-51 win in Memphis.

He played 23 minutes and scored 8 points in a 104-84 loss to Tennessee during the 2010-11 season. It just so happens, that's the game that sticks out in his memory, both the loss and the Thompson-Boling atmosphere.

"My freshman year we didn't have such a good year here, it was one of the worst losses I took in my college career," Barton said. "Just coming in, it was a packed environment, I loved the environment, the support, the fans. That's something I just want to play in front of."

Now, Barton said, it's his teammates that are bringing up those memories of the Memphis wins.

"We'll sit in the locker room after workouts and just talk about old games and stuff like that, how many overtimes we've went to," he said. "They bring it up more than I do."

Now on a bigger campus, Barton said he's walking a little farther to class while still trying to find his way around, he's getting back in the weight room after leaving a cardio-focused program at Memphis and trying to fill that void as the "floor general" on a talented Tennessee roster.

"We have a lot of talent," Barton said. "The newcomers, the guys that are returning, we have talent in all areas. From the guards down low, even guys coming off the bench. We have the team."

It's that talent, that fit, this team, that helped bring him here, even if it meant leaving Memphis for a cross-state rival.

"Me transferring, I didn't want to go anywhere where I'd score all the points and we wouldn't win," he said. "I wanted to come somewhere and compete and be a contender for a national championship."


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