Stray Dog Adds Bite To Vols Back Court

Howell about that Dog... correction, make that Vol.

Reputed to be a standout open court player, Jordan Howell made the quickest ever transition from one SEC basketball team to another, when he announced Tuesday he was signing with Tennessee after gaining a release from Georgia and a wavier from the conference to transfer to another SEC school without having to sit out a season, or two.

A Class 6A Mr. Basketball finalist from Bob Jones High School in Madison, Ala., Howell chose the Vols over Auburn, where his father Rex Howell played, in-state Alabama, UT intrastate rival Vanderbilt and Final Four qualifier Texas after a whirlwind re-recruitment tour of each of those campuses. Auburn got the last visit over the weekend and appeared to be the favorite given his father's history there and the fact his brother was considering transferring to AU.

"I really think coach Buzz Peterson was the difference," said Rex Howell of his sons decision to sign with Tennessee. "Jordan liked him when he came down here to recruit him. He really liked the whole coaching staff at Tennessee. When he went to Knoxville with his mother, he liked everything he saw as far as facilities and opportunities."

Peterson's power of persuasion with potential transfers proved strong again as Howell made the announcement of his decision to become a Vol on the coach's 40th birthday. He follows Scooter McFagdon who transferred to Tennessee from Memphis after his sophomore season and Jereme Hendrix who transferred to UT from Clemson after his freshman campaign. Both McFagdon and Hendrix sat out last season, although each practiced with the team, and will be eligible to play this fall, along with Howell. They'll be joined Dane Bradshaw from Memphis White Station and Major Wingate from North Gwinnett High School near Atlanta. Bradshaw and Wingate are both coming in off stellar senior seasons that boosted their stock among recruiting analysts.

The signing of Howell was made possible when sophomore Derek Stribling decided to leave UT in order to attend a school where he could get more playing time. Stribling, a good athlete who lacked the offensive skills to break into UT's playing rotation, was originally signed by Jerry Green's staff. Power forward Andy Ikeakor elected to exit Tennessee early last season, leaving Brandon Crump and Elgrace Wilborn as the only players on the Vols roster not signed by Peterson's staff. The Vols have two scholarships to award for the 2003-04 season.

The 6-4, Howell is regarded as a combo guard, who was being sought primarily as a point guard by most of the schools recruiting him. His addition shores up a position that has been undermanned for the last seven years at Tennessee, dating back to 1997 when Brandon Wharton and Tony Harris shared point guard duties despite their preference for shooting over passing.

After Wharton graduated, Harris continued to struggle in the lead guard role and the duties were eventually divided when shooting guard Jon Higgins arrived in 1999. Higgins handled the bulk of the time at the point as a sophomore and played lead guard almost exclusively during Peterson's first year.

Last year Higgins returned to shooting guard after the arrival of highly touted freshman C.J. Watson, but the back court veteran also provided relief for the prized rookie in what amounted to a three-guard rotation John Winchester and Stanley Asumnu splitting reserve minutes as shooting guards. After Higgins was academically disqualified late in last season, Watson's workload began to take its toll and Tennessee's fortunes took a nose dive as a late season losing streak the cost the Vols an NCAA bid. Without Higgins Tennessee didn't have anyone that could play the point.

With the arrival this fall of Bradshaw and Howell, both rated among the top 20 combo guard prospects in the nation, Tennessee has three players that can play the point. The trio could also be used together in ball control situations where the object is to protect a lead, run down the shot clock and hit free throws. Additionally, McFagdon gives Tennessee an experienced candidate with good size and excellent versatility at the two guard. The addition of quality depth at guard will likely result in a more up tempo pace for the Vols. Peterson is known to prefer such pace but hasn't had the guards to implement that approach.

Sophomore Winchester is another contender for playing time at shooting guard while classmate Asumnu will likely move to the small forward slot, where McFagdon could also play. Senior Justin Albrecht, a junior college transfer who was injured and played little last season, projects as a wing or small forward role. Hendrix and Wingate are expected to add much needed strength to UT's front line that already features the 6-10 Crump, 7-0 Boomer Herndon and 6-8 jumping jack Elgrace Wilborn.

Overall, it's the best collection of talent and depth at the guard positions Tennessee has had in recent memory, although five of the six back court candidates are underclassmen and can't be expected to play like veterans next season.

In Howell, the Vols gain a solid perimeter performer who shot 45 and 47 percent respectively from 3-point range as a junior and senior. He averaged 17.9 points and seven assists a last season, leading the Patriots to a 30-6 record and the runner-up spot in the state's largest classification. His assist-to-turnover ratio was an impressive 5 to 1.

After leading his team to a 19-0 start, Howell missed eight games his senior season due to a bout with mononucleious, but returned in time for post season tournaments. Upon Howell's return the Patriots got on a roll, defeating the state's No. 4, No. 3 and No. 2 seeds before dropping an agonizing decision in the title game to John Carroll Catholic High School. The Patriots enjoyed a 12-point lead in that contest with three minutes left to play but couldn't repel a late rally. Howell led his team in the finals with 17 points, hitting 6-of-12 field goal attempts. He transferred to Jones High School from Auburn High School after his sophomore season.

Bob Jones coach Dan Bell compared Howell's playing style to Oregon's Luke Ridnour and the Ducks actually tried to recruit Howell when he became available, but he opted to remain in the south.

"He really sees the court and he's an excellent outside shooter,'' Bell said. "I think it's important that he's in a situation where he has the green light. He makes good decisions and is very unselfish."

Despite the fact Jordan decided not to follow his father's and uncle's path to Auburn, Rex Howell said he wasn't disappointed.

"We're really happy about his decision," said Rex Howell who played for the War Eagles in the early 70s. "We feel it is a good situation for Jordan."

As it turns out Jordan might not be pitted against his brother when the Vols meet the Tigers on the hardwood next winter.

"His brother was thinking about transferring to Auburn," said the senior Howell, "but they've had a coaching change at William & Mary so he might decide to stay there."

The coaching change at Georgia had the opposite impact on Jordan and the shock waves reached all the way to Rocky Top.

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