Brian's pumped

If he could score one point for each of the friends and family members who'll be watching him battle Virginia Commonwealth tonight in New York City, Brian Williams would etch his name into Tennessee's record book.

"I should have about 60 there," said Williams, who grew up in The Bronx. "There should be more but some of them probably have to work or something."

The opportunity to play in front of the home folks isn't the only reason Williams is excited about this evening's 7 o'clock start in the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament semifinals.

"It's not just going back to New York; it's getting to play in Madison Square Garden," the 6-10, 270-pound senior said. "That's a dream come true for most New York City kids growing up. It's a blessing, and getting to see my mother is always a good thing."

Simply put, The Garden is hallowed ground to basketball players. Nearly all of the game's greats have showcased their skills in the historic venue, so playing there is a privilege.

"I've been dreaming about this since I was little," Williams said. "I've been to a lot of games - Knicks, Harlem Globetrotters, whatever was there - but this is my first time ever getting to play there. The Garden showcases a lot of talent. That's why it's the Mecca. Words can't describe what it means to play in The Garden."

Perhaps playing in The Garden with 60 homefolks watching will help Williams elevate his game. He is averaging just 3.7 points and 6.3 rebounds per game through the first three outings.

"I started off struggling," he conceded. "Foul trouble's been keeping me out a little bit. But I think I'm getting back in the rhythm of things, getting the nicks out."

Williams isn't the only Tennessee player struggling a bit in November. The Vols are ranked No. 24 nationally and 3-0 but they were seriously challenged in home-court wins against Belmont (85-76) and Missouri State (60-56). Williams is convinced those close calls will help Tennessee in the long run.

"You ain't going to win no games unless you're winning those clutch possessions," he said. "We've done that a couple of times. Since I've been here at Tennessee the one thing we haven't done well is shoot free throws. But we've been hitting our (clutch) free throws lately to win games, and that's always a plus."

Tennessee lacks the experience and cohesion to dominate most opponents. Thus, grinding to victory against Belmont and Missouri State was good preparation for the rest of the season.

"It's not just good for the veterans; it's good for the freshmen because they get to see what it's all about," Williams said. "Them kind of games definitely can help them out."

If Tennessee beats Virginia Commonwealth (3-0) tonight, the Vols will play Friday at 5 against the Villanova-UCLA winner for the tourney title. That would be a big step for a Vol team that has been unimpressive to date.

"To win a tournament, especially with talents in it like Villanova," Williams noted, "will boost up in the rankings and give us the exposure we need."

With a glut of national media attending and a national TV audience watching, Tennessee could raise its stock considerably by playing well in New York this week. The Vols realize this.

"It's the first game we have on national television to showcase our talent," Williams said. "People don't expect a lot from us since we lost a lot of veterans, so it's time to showcase what we've got."

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