KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Each time Tennessee goes on the road, the games start long before the Volunteers take the floor.
But it's not what most would expect. These guys aren't emulating NBA or NFL stars on video games. No, when some of the 13th-ranked Vols compete against one another in their hotel, they prefer board games.
Their game of choice is Settlers of Catan, in which players attempt to establish settlements by collecting resources such as brick, lumber, wool, grain and ore. Sophomore forward Grant Williams saw some teammates playing the game and liked it so much that he bought one himself.
"I'm a board game type of guy," Williams said. "So I just bought probably six or seven board games that night. I bought Catan, Sorry, two Monopolys, Trouble."
A handful of Vols have been playing Settlers of Catan on every road trip while Tennessee (23-7, 13-5 SEC) has made its surprising push toward an NCAA Tournament berth. Walk-on guard Brad Woodson said a few players even spent New Year's Eve playing Settlers of Catan, Monopoly and other board games as the clock struck midnight.
Those road-trip board games have apparently been a good-luck charm: Tennessee is 10-5 away from home this season heading into its SEC Tournament quarterfinal with Mississippi State on Friday in St. Louis. It might have been a good thing for the Vols if they had started the routine sooner — they went a combined 8-26 outside Thompson-Boling Arena in coach Rick Barnes' first two seasons.
"It lets us spend more time with the team, let's us get closer to each other, instead of spending our time on the phone," said Yves Pons, a freshman forward from France.
Tennessee's Settlers of Catan regulars include Williams, Pons, Woodson and walk-on guard Lucas Campbell. Fifth-year senior guard James Daniel III, freshman forward Zach Kent and team manager Sam Tarver also have participated.
"We're trying to get other guys to join and participate, but some guys are trying to play the too-cool route," Williams said.
Tennessee sure wasn't the cool pick in the SEC this season.
The Vols don't have a single top-125 recruit according to the 247Sports Composite , and the SEC media poll predicted they would finish 13th out of 14 teams. Instead, the Vols captured a share of the SEC's regular-season title.
Williams, the son of a NASA engineer who picked Tennessee over Ivy League schools, has emerged as Tennessee's leading scorer and a unanimous first-team all-SEC selection. SEC coaches named the 6-foot-7 sophomore the league's player of the year.
"He is so strong and he's so disciplined with his ability to post with ultimate physicality the entire game he's on the floor," Florida coach Mike White said after Williams scored 23 points in a victory over the Gators . "I thought he wore us down."
Off the court, Williams — who also can play multiple musical instruments — said his love for board games stems from failing to beat his grandfather at chess. Williams said he's the best Settlers of Catan player on the team, though that's a matter of debate.
"It goes back and forth a lot," Woodson said. "Starting out, Lucas won quite a few, then I won a couple. Grant's been pretty hot lately. He's won one or two."
Williams tells a different story.
"They kicked my butt in the beginning. More recently, they say I'm on a 'hot streak,'" Williams said, using air quotes with his fingers to dismiss that notion. "I've won almost every game (lately), so I feel like I'm the alpha of Catan. Everyone who thinks Brad's the alpha, I'm the omega."
The team's off-court bonding activities aren't limited to board games. The Vols also aren't bashful when it comes to their musical talents.
A video circulated on social media a couple of years ago of forward Admiral Schofield playing the guitar while forward Kyle Alexander sang "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz. Pons can play the saxophone. Williams has played as many as nine instruments, including the piano, violin and clarinet.
When Alexander was asked this season about a name for a potential band featuring all the musical Vols, he jokingly suggested, "Kyle and The Others."
Of course, any plans for a jam session will have to wait.
"We need Yves to get his saxophone from France and also I need to do a better job back to playing the piano," Williams quipped. "With that, I'd just say it's going to take some time."
Their immediate focus is their first opponent Friday in the SEC Tournament, then what they hope will be a long run in the NCAA Tournament. And that journey will no doubt include their favorite board game.
"I wish we could have a Catan tournament in the NCAAs," Williams said. "On an off day, you go to a hotel room and find out who's the best team — both in the NCAAs and also Catan."
Vols fans would settle for SEC and NCAA tournament titles.
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