You've come a long way, baby

If you saw Tennessee lose 79-64 to Div. II Indianapolis in a Nov. 8 exhibition game, you're probably wondering how the same Vol team clipped Villanova 78-68 a week ago in the NIT Season Tip-Off finals and hammered Middle Tennessee 86-56 Tuesday night.

The answer: The Big Orange wasn't a team when it lost to Indy. It was a group of guys who had not yet blended into a unit.

"We came a long way," said senior center John Fields, a first-year transfer from UNC Wilmington who was still feeling his way along during the exhibition season. "People's roles are more defined. The offense is running smoother. People know where everybody wants to get the ball."

Fields concedes that this team bears little resemblance to the one that stunk up Thompson-Boling Arena in the loss to Indianapolis.

"We was a fairly new team with a lot of new guys that hadn't played together," he said. "Now we know where each person wants the ball, who our main scorers are. Everybody knows their role, and it's working like a well-oiled machine right now."

One reason the Vols resemble a machine these days is the emergence of freshman Tobias Harris as a star player. He's averaging 16.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game since the regular season began. He believes familiarity has made Tennessee a more cohesive team.

"The big thing is just better chemistry," he said. "Guys know each other better. We know our personnel better. That's all coming together, and I knew it was going to come together. It's still early in the season but that (exhibition loss) was really early in the season. We kind of bounced back from that and just kept it up."

Tennessee bounced back, all right. The Vols were light-years better against Villanova than they were three weeks earlier against Indianapolis. Buoyed by beating the No. 6 team in America, a confident Tennessee team could be even better in the weeks and months to come.

"Beating Villanova boosted our confidence really well," Harris said. "We knew we could play with the best. Going out there and winning that game just proved it. Now we have another game to win; Pittsburgh (Dec. 11) is a very tough team, so we should go out there and try to do the same thing."

In addition to improving as a team, several Vols have improved individually. Fields is one of these.

"I feel like I'm coming along," he said. "I'm getting more comfortable with the system, more comfortable with the guys. I'm feeling real comfortable. I feel like there are better days ahead for me."

Although Middle Tennessee is not an SEC-caliber team, the Vols looked awfully good in beating the Blue Raiders. Tennessee was downright tenacious defensively during an eight-minute first-half stretch in which it outscored Middle 21-0.

"That's how we've got to play," Harris said. "That's our basketball. If we keep playing like that we're going to be a really tough team to beat."

A lot tougher to beat than they were on Nov. 8, for sure.

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