Guarding Against Future Failure

It is during this annual renewal of gripping basketball struggles and high drama that the importance of great guard play surfaces and separates the survivors-and-advancers from the dead-and-buried.

Typically the teams with the best guards gain a tactical advantage by controlling tempo, adjusting to opponents they've never played before breaking down defenses in what will almost inevitably become a half-court game.

Even when Tennessee was posting 20-win seasons and reaching the NCAA Tournament, it never had the luxury of a genuine point guard, a pure shooter or depth in the backcourt.

As such the Vols have been vulnerable to on-the-ball pressure and were unable to mount a consistent half-court attack against defenses that were willing to concede the outside shot if it meant closing down the post. Tennessee often grew impatient and forced passes inside or forced shots outside.

UT's frustration would usually carry over to the defensive end where the Vols would lose focus and the intensity it takes to play effective man defense.

C.J. Watson brought stability to the point guard position as a freshman last season but when Jon Higgins was lost late in the year, fatigue began to take its toll as the Las Vegas native was averaging 38 minutes per contest.

The addition of Scooter McFadgon boosted UT's perimeter game but did nothing to lessen Watson's ball handling load. And when McFadgon struggled with his shot Buzz Peterson had no scoring remedy.

Eventually Peterson asked Watson to assume more of the scoring duties which he did, but with the sophomore looking to shoot more he distributed less and UT's offense was no better off.

As freshman Dane Bradshaw earned more playing time, Tennessee had a rotation that was better able to break down the array of zone defenses opponents would use, but there is still a lack of depth at guard as well as shooting range.

What Tennessee most needs in the recruiting class of 2005 is another combo guard capable of playing either guard position. That would give the Vols three such versatile backcourt components, allowing them to keep two in the game at all times and one in relief. Peterson could also use all three when he wants to eat clock and protect a lead, or he could rotate the three at two positions so that all would remain fresh.

Enter Josh Thornton, a 6-foot-1, 160-pound guard from Caesar Rodney High School in Dover, Del., who officially visited Tennessee last month and currently list the Vols as his favorite. Considered among the best point guards in the nation, Thornton averaged 23 points and five rebounds per game this season despite being hampered by several injuries.

As a sophomore Thornton averaged 22 points per game for the Riders and he led the state in three-point shooting, hitting a remarkable 77 from beyond the arc. Originally from New York, Thornton arrived in Delaware as an eighth grader as the latest stop of many. The son of a career military man Thornton has lived in Germany and Japan as well as several cities in the United States.

Peterson would like nothing better than for Knoxville to be Thornton's next destination and UT's embattled coach has made it clear how important he could be to their basketball future.

"Not only do they really want me, but they also really need me," Thornton said. "I guess at this point I can't really say that about any other school except probably Arkansas."

When asked about his UT visit, Thornton said: "It went great. I really liked it. I felt a really good vibe from the coaches and staff there. I didn't get a chance to interact with the players a whole lot because they're pretty quiet. It was great."

If Thornton thought the Vols were quiet at home he should see them on the road this season where they were rarely seen or heard. However it doesn't take an expert to recognize Tennessee's potential especially with a little seasoning and the addition of a guard who is good enough off the dribble and quick enough on the draw to create his own shot opportunities.

In one contest this season against rival Laurel, Thornton scored 34 points. Most impressively he overcame a 2-for-7 first half shooting effort in which he scored only five points. He spent the second quarter getting an ankle sprain taped and was operating on a bruised knee that had cost him a couple of earlier games. Undaunted by a nine-point deficit, a sub par shooting performance or limited mobility, he came out firing in the second half and scored 19 points in the third quarter with five three-pointers. He finished the game hitting 8-of-18 from long range.

While most players would be proud of a 34-point game and a come-from-behind victory, Thornton, who plans to major in business, isn't one of them.

"To tell you the truth, it was an off night," he told The Insiders Dave Telep. "From the start my shot wasn't falling. It's been a rough season, fighting through injury."

Thornton is also versatile enough not to rely on his shooting to underwrite his game. He's also capable of penetrating a defense and taking the rock to the tall timber. It was a talent he demonstrated at a Nike Camp last summer.

"As soon as I stepped into the gym, I saw 6-9, 7-foot and I was so small but I loved the challenge," Thornton said. "Since I started playing basketball, the only thing I can remember is playing with not good talent. That was the most fun thing, playing with talent. I didn't have to score. That was so exciting just to pass and somebody else make it."

Rider head coach Tiff McCullough has seen Thornton make strides as a junior and believes he is developing into a complete player. "Last year he would settle for a tougher shot. Now he's shot faking and getting more to the basket. He'll be a combo guard in college because he can definitely score."

With true combo guards being hard to find, Thornton is naturally getting a lot of attention. The list of schools pursuing the multitalented guard reads like a college hardwood Who's Who — Kansas, North Carolina, Connecticut, DePaul, Duke, Florida, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Maryland, Miami-FL, Missouri, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Seton Hall, St. Joseph's, Texas, UCLA, Arkansas, Florida State and Villanova.

Certainly big-time basketball programs know the way to Caesar Rodney which has produced some prize guard prospects in recent years, including Laron Profit who went to Maryland and Janavor Weatherspoon who is at Oklahoma State.

Peterson has developed a good relationship with Thornton who may be nearing a decision. However Caesar Rodney lost for the first time this season when UT's head coach showed up to watch.

"[Coach Peterson] said he gave me back luck because I only had 11 and we lost," Thornton said. "We've been on a streak since then."

With a little bit of luck, Buzz might land this standout and break Tennessee's post season losing streak.

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