KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Antonio Barton says he's still getting used to being on a different side of the Tennessee-Memphis rivalry.
His new teammates are making the point guard's adjustment easier.
After graduating from Memphis in three years, Barton decided to transfer for his final season of eligibility. He cited the sales pitch of Tennessee's players as a major reason why he selected the Volunteers.
"We talked as if they knew me all my life," Barton said. "That just made me feel comfortable."
Tennessee believes Barton can help the Vols return to the NCAA tournament after making back-to-back NIT appearances.
The Vols return first-team all-SEC guard Jordan McRae and second-team all-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes. They welcome back former second-team all-SEC forward Jeronne Maymon, who sat out last season with a knee injury.
But they needed an experienced point guard to replace Trae Golden, now at Georgia Tech. They expect Barton to fill that void.
"I didn't want to go anywhere where I would score all the points and we wouldn't win," Barton said. "I wanted to come somewhere where I could compete and be a contender for a national championship."
Barton's blue-collar mentality makes him an ideal point guard for this particular program.
"We're a team that's built on toughness, regardless of the talent or personnel you have," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "He is a guy that has a tremendous level of toughness."
Barton said that toughness arose from his Baltimore upbringing and continued when he was overlooked as a recruit.
When he signed with Memphis, Barton was overshadowed by his brother, Will Barton, who played alongside him in college and now is with the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers. Memphis coach Josh Pastner disputes the notion that the Barton brothers were a "package deal" and said the Tigers recruited Antonio on his own merits.
"I've been playing with a chip on my shoulder all my life, guys saying I was a throw-in coming to Memphis with my brother," Barton said. "I don't let it get me down. I just use it as motivation."
Barton averaged 8.2 points per game as a freshman and made 19 starts a sophomore, but he missed much of the 2012-13 season with a hairline fracture in his right foot. When he returned, Memphis was on a roll. His playing time consequently dipped.
"It was just hard to work him in because we were in such a rhythm," Pastner said. "To his credit, Antonio even said, 'Hey, coach, I don't want to break the rhythm. Let's just keep it moving so we keep on winning.' That's to his credit. He's such a team guy."
Barton's new team knows him well.
When Memphis beat Tennessee 99-97 in the 2011 Maui Invitational, Barton scored 21 points and made a jumper that put the Tigers ahead for good in double overtime. Less than two months later, Barton scored 19 points in a 69-51 victory over Tennessee.
"He beat us up quite a bit," Martin said. "You want a guy like that. You don't want to play against a guy like that."
When Barton chose to transfer, Pastner said he agreed to release him to any school that wasn't on Memphis' 2013-14 schedule. Tennessee isn't playing Memphis this season for the first time since 2004-05. Because he already has his degree, Barton is eligible to play for his new school immediately.
Barton said his cross-state move shocked some people, but he noted his brother cheered the decision and called Tennessee a "positive fit" for him.
Barton replaces Golden, a streaky player who pretty much served as the barometer for Tennessee's fortunes last season. When Golden was hot, the Vols usually won. When he wasn't on his game, Tennessee struggled.
The Vols hope Barton provides more consistency. Pastner called him "as dependable, reliable and accountable as they come."
"I think he'll do a great job," Pastner said. "I know Cuonzo is big on toughness. Antonio's going to fill that bill. They got themselves a very good starting point guard."