Go-to guy

There are four reasons the Basketball Vols look to Scotty Hopson at crunch time: The other four Tennessee players on the floor.

As the only returning starter from the 2009-10 team, Hopson essentially is the Vols' go-to player in the closing minutes by default. Consider this quote from head coach Bruce Pearl:

"Let's say you put the ball in Melvin's hands at the end," the coach said, referring to senior point guard Melvin Goins. "When was the last time that happened?

"Tobias (Harris) is a freshman. Do you want Brian (Williams) to take the last shot, get fouled and shoot 50 percent from the foul line? Or maybe it's Cam (Tatum)."

That leaves Hopson, a 6-foot-7 junior, as the closest thing the Vols have to a take-charge guy in late-game situations.

"Scotty Hopson's been a three-year starter for us," Pearl said. "But he can't do it alone. Obviously, he goes through periods of time when he struggles. He went through a pretty steep three-game slump (Games 8, 9 and 10), and we didn't have anybody else that really stepped up and filled in when he was struggling."

That's a fact. Hopson's "steep three-game slump" saw him go 1 for 7 in an 89-82 Game 8 loss to Oakland, 6 for 19 in a 49-48 Game 9 loss at Charlotte and 1 for 5 in a 65-64 Game 10 loss to USC.

By comparison, Hopson scored 27 points on 10-for-13 shooting vs. Pittsburgh in the game prior to the three-game losing streak and 19 points on 5-for-11 shooting vs. Belmont in the game that ended the losing streak. It's only a slight oversimplification to say: When Scotty shoots well, Tennessee wins. When Scotty shoots poorly, Tennessee loses.

That's a lot of pressure to put on one guy's shoulders, of course, but Hopson is OK with it.

"That's ultimately what I need to do for this basketball team. If we're in a slump and everyone's looking for somebody to go to, that's my job - to take over and get us wins," he said. "I'm glad Coach and the rest of the guys gave me the ball (at crunch time vs. Belmont) and gave me an opportunity to score, and I did that for us."

Because Hopson arrived at Tennessee as a McDonald's All-American from Hopkinsville, Ky., fans expected him to be a star from Day One. He wasn't. He averaged 9.2 points as a freshman and 12.2 as a sophomore. He's averaging a team-high 15.6 this season but is shooting a so-so 43.4 percent from the floor and 31.7 percent from 3. Tennessee's fans expect more of him, and so does Tennessee's head coach. Pearl purposely gets under the laid-back Vol's skin in order to push him.

"He's done that my whole career," Hopson conceded. "It gets me fired up, and I play even better sometimes because of the fact he's getting under my skin. You've got to have that mental toughness. He tells us, "Listen to what I say, not how I say it." At the end of the day, we have to do that."

On a positive note, Hopson has boosted his free-throw percentage from 62.5 as a freshman and 58.8 as a sophomore to 78.3 as a junior. He was 8 of 9 from the line vs. Belmont, including 7 of 7 in the final 5:28.

"You can see my progress," he said. "I've been working on my free throws throughout the offseason and I'm still working to this day."

If Hopson could develop the late-game consistency from the field that he has from the foul line, Tennessee might make a return trip to the NCAA's Elite Eight. Even he admits a confounding tendency to run hot and cold.

"I think it's just my mindset. Whenever I feel like no one can stop me and I've got to get to the rim, I'm pretty much successful with it," he said. "I've just got to have that mental toughness and focus - knowing that the game is on the line and I have to get a bucket. Whether I get that bucket or not, trying my hardest is going to ultimately lead me to be successful."

Hopson certainly was successful vs. Belmont - scoring Tennessee's final nine points, including the game-winning layup with 5.7 seconds left. Perhaps that will be a springboard for him. One teammate thinks it could be.

"It was big-time for Scotty," Goins said. "I was real happy for him, especially with me - as the point guard and as a senior - playing so poorly. He was able to step up and make big plays late in the game. Just to see him come through for our team - and for his confidence level - I believe it was real big for Scotty to hit those shots late in the game."

Pearl is a bit more skeptical, however. When asked how much impact Hopson's big finish vs. Belmont could have on him, the coach replied that "It depends on what he does when he comes back" from Christmas break.

Hopson laughed when told of the comment.

"He's exactly right," the player said. "He always preaches that the highs can't be too high and the lows can't be too low. It's all about how we handle success and how we handle adversity."

As Tennessee's crunch-time go-to guy, Scotty Hopson has been handling a lot of each lately.

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