'Bittersweet' time for Tatum

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When he committed to Tennessee in April of 2006, Cameron Tatum had no way of anticipating the six-year odyssey that lay ahead of him. That's why he admits being somewhat reflective as he prepares for his final home game Saturday against Vanderbilt.

"A little bit," he said recently. "It'll be bittersweet."

For a guy who has played in 134 college games, pinpointing the highlight of his Vol career was a surprisingly easy task.

"The Elite Eight (in March of 2010) probably," Tatum said. "That was a mark in history that nobody will ever be able to take away. And probably the Memphis game (in February of 2008) when we became No. 1. I didn't play in that game but I still felt a part of it."

Now that the fifth-year senior's career is down to one final home game, Tatum is tempted to look back on the 70 months that have passed since he committed to the Vols. But, with Tennessee still fighting for a post-season bid, he'd prefer to wait just a bit longer.

"There's a lot of memories I've had here," he said, "but I'll deal with that when the season's over with."

Some of the memories were not pleasant. After picking the Vols following his senior season at Tucker High School in Lithonia, Ga., he had to spend 2006-07 at The Patterson School in North Carolina getting his academics in order. Then, seven games into his rookie year at Tennessee, knee problems forced him to sit out the rest of the 2007-08 season. That kept him on the sidelines as Tennessee upset top-ranked Memphis and ascended to No. 1 in the national rankings the following Monday.

When Tatum was stopped for speeding on New Year's Day of 2010, Knoxville police found a gun and marijuana in the vehicle. Teammate Tyler Smith was dismissed from the team for gun possession and teammate Brian Williams was suspended 10 games for marijuana possession. Tatum and Melvin Goins incurred four-game suspensions that caused them to miss one of the greatest moments in Volunteer history, a stunning upset of top-ranked Kansas at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Still more tough times lay ahead. Tatum's stroke mysteriously abandoned him as a junior. After shooting 48.1 from the field and a team-best 38.9 percent from 3 as a sophomore in 2009-10, his numbers plummeted to 37.5 and 27.2 in 2010-11. The man who signed him, Bruce Pearl, was fired as Tennessee's head coach last March, then star players Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson renounced their remaining eligibility in favor of the NBA Draft.

Surrounded by new coaches and a bunch of unproven teammates, Tatum knew the 2011-12 season might be a challenge. He was right. The Vols were limping along at 10-12 overall and 2-5 in SEC play as February arrived.

It was time for the senior leader to lead, and Tatum did. He helped rally the Vols to a 7-1 record in February that has lifted them to 17-13 overall and 9-6 in SEC play. Fans were shocked by the turnaround. Tatum insists he wasn't.

"Even when times were tough early in the year, we kept saying, 'It's a long season. We've got plenty of time to get better,'" he said. "As long as you keep trying to get better as a team, everything else will take care of itself."

No stranger to adversity, Tatum handled Tennessee's early season struggles with determination and poise. He helped convince his teammates back in early February that the season still could be salvaged.

"We understand what we've got to do in terms of playing for each other, getting better as a team, guys understanding their roles and guys understanding what's at stake," he said. "I think this staff and everybody on the team has done a tremendous job of sticking with the course, keeping their heads up and being positive."

Keeping his head up has been no simple task for Tatum. Counted on for double-digit scoring this season, he is averaging just 7.8 points per game and shooting a woeful 35.4 percent from the field. Still, he has started every game this season. The reason? Tatum is doing everything else well

He is second on the team in assists (76) and steals (24). He's averaging a solid 4.0 rebounds per game and he's playing the finest defense of his career.

Tatum's value is further enhanced by his versatility. Although best suited to small forward, the 6-foot-7, 193-pounder also has played point guard, shooting guard and even some power forward this season.

After representing teams that averaged nearly 25 wins per season en route to NCAA Tournament bids in each of his first four years on campus, Tatum was a bit shaken when the 2011-12 Vols lost at home to a 1-9 Austin Peay team on Dec. 10. Still, he never lost faith in his coaching staff or his teammates.

"Not really," he recalled. "I knew we had the talent and I knew we could play with anybody. It was more about the team chemistry than anything."

Ultimately, that awful loss to Austin Peay may have been precisely the wakeup call the Vols needed. In retrospect, that humiliation may represent the turning point of the season.

"You can take the game film and see how lackadaisical we were in the Austin Peay game," Tatum said. "Then you look at the Florida film (four weeks later) and you see the growth of the team. Everybody coming in and getting extra shots helped the team get better. You can tell a tremendous difference from the Austin Peay game to now."

Tennessee's progress is a credit to senior leader Cameron Tatum. It's also a credit to head coach Cuonzo Martin, whose positive energy kept the Vols believing in themselves, even as their season appeared to be unraveling.

"His big thing is being tough, being a warrior and playing hard every time," Tatum said. "Whenever you get praise from a guy like that, it gives you a boost of confidence and you want to keep playing as hard as you can."

Especially if you're a fifth-year senior down to your final home game.

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