Guarded optimism

Most Tennessee basketball fans figured they'd be more likely to find a four-leaf clover than to find Scotty Hopson playing consistent basketball.

Well, perhaps they were wrong.

Hopson led the Vols with 15 points Tuesday at Georgia, marking the eighth game in a row he has scored at least 15 points. You can't expect much more consistency than that, especially given the guy's history:

- As a ballyhooed freshman in 2008-09, he put together back-to-back double-figure scoring efforts just twice. He didn't string together three double-digit outings all season.

- He opened his sophomore season of 2009-10 with 16 points vs. Austin Peay, 25 vs. UNC Asheville and 25 vs. East Carolina, but followed with just 4 points vs. DePaul in Game 4 and 9 vs. Purdue in Game 5. After going off for 21 points vs. College of Charleston in Game 6, he went 4 of 14 from the field in Game 7 vs. ETSU, then produced 1 point in Game 8 vs. Middle Tennessee.

- Hopson drained at least half of his shots in posting three consecutive double-digit outings in Games 9, 10 and 11 but went 3 of 11 at Memphis. Then, after hitting 19 of 30 shots over the next three games, he made just 4 of 15 vs. Ole Miss.

- He rallied to sink 17 of 31 shots (9 of 16 from 3) in Games 17-19 and average 16.7 points during the stretch. He shot just 33.8 percent (26 of 77) over the next seven games, however, became a liability on defense and lost his starting job.

- Coming off the bench for the first time all season in Game 31 at Florida, a fired-up Hopson hit 8 of 15 shots en route to 20 points. Back in the starting lineup, he followed with solid showings against Kentucky (15 points), Arkansas (15) and Mississippi State (14), only to fall flat in the SEC Tournament - going 0 for 8 vs. LSU, 2 for 11 vs. Ole Miss and 4 for 10 vs. Kentucky.

- Except for a 7-for-9 shooting performance in Round 2 vs. Ohio, he also struggled in the NCAA Tournament - going 3 for 9 vs. San Diego State, 1 for 5 vs. Ohio State and 3 for 7 vs. Michigan State.

- Knowing he was the Vols' No. 1 scoring option this season, Hopson opened his junior year with seven consecutive double-digit performances, capped by a brilliant outing in an upset of third-ranked Pitt (10 of 13 field goals, a career-high 27 points).

- His inconsistent nature surfaced again at this point, as he went just 1 of 7 vs. Oakland, 6 of 19 at Charlotte and 1 of 5 vs. Southern Cal. Not coincidentally, Tennessee lost each of the three games.

In the eight outings since the loss to USC, however, Hopson has played closer to what fans expect of a former McDonald's All-American - shooting 43.5 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from 3 and averaging 17.8 points per game. Moreover, he is showing better consistency in terms of his defensive effort.

One reason for the change in Hopson is that Tennessee recently began asking the 6-foot-7 guard to cover opposing small forwards. Because this makes him play defense closer to the basket, he is forced to be more physical and more aggressive. Those traits carry over when he goes on offense, making him more forceful as he's driving to the basket.

"He's having to physically mix it up a little bit more," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "I think that's helping him, as opposed to being out there chasing a guard on the perimeter all the time he's on defense.... (By guarding small forwards) he's got contact throughout the game."

The head man plans to continue assigning Hopson to guard small forwards in hopes he will continue to develop his toughness and aggressiveness.

"If I can find a way to get him closer to the basket on the defensive end," Pearl said, "I think it's helping him offensively."

Hopson is so talented that he dominated back at University Heights High School in Hopkinsville, Ky., without putting forth great effort. He showed up at Tennessee inclined to launch 3-pointers on offense and give minimal effort on defense. As a result, he is still learning to play with hustle and focus on a regular basis. His intensity level was much better than it used to be Tuesday night at Georgia.

"You could see right from the very beginning that Scotty was very, very focused," Pearl said. "And yet, he didn't exactly press up on Dustin Ware on that last 3-ball (that gave Georgia a 57-57 tie in the final minute). Scotty had that matchup, and I'm going to make sure he understands that there's an example of what the old Scotty can't do. But I saw that he's learned and that he's trying to be focused and be more physical."

If Hopson's effort level ever matches his skill level, he could be something really special. Pearl thinks that day may be on the horizon.

"It's inspiring to see Scotty play as hard as anybody out there," the coach said with a laugh. "That's inspiring. That's exciting."

Hopson even shocked his coaches and teammates with an unprecedented dive to the floor for a loose ball in a recent practice.

"He traveled when he got it," Pearl wisecracked, "but at least he was on the floor for it."

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