Hoops practice nears

Next weekend still seems an eternity away.

"I get antsy every day I come into the office," said Jason Shay, a first-year basketball assistant at Tennessee under new coach Bruce Pearl. "Practice is right around the corner.

"We're certainly looking forward to starting."

But with the official start of practice still 11 days away, new NCAA regulations have allowed coaches more access to their players during informal fall workouts. The Volunteers' coaching staff has been allowed to hold workouts with the entire team, rather than with just four players, as the previous rule allowed.

During that time Pearl and his staff have been given a chance to evaluate the talent left over from a squad that finished well below expectations at 14-17 and out of postseason competition a year ago.

"We've got everything here at Tennessee in place to be a contender each year," said Shay, who was a walk-on at Iowa and a holdover from Pearl's staff at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "We have some of the best facilities in the country, and with that we're trying to raise the expectations.

"It's time we start thinking we're as good as Kentucky. Our goal isn't to compete with them. We want to beat them, year in and year out."

Tennessee will have to do that without two pivotal hubs of last year's squad. Center Brandon Crump and shooting guard Scooter McFadgon were both double-digit scorers a year ago, and forward Jemere Hendrix was kicked off the team Monday, leaving a significant hole in the post.

"There's always a concern about whether you have enough big guys," said Shay, "but I think we're going to have enough guys to run in and out of the post.

"If you can find undersized guys who can contribute on the defensive end and get a rebound, then you have a mismatch on the offensive side of the court."

That's exactly what Pearl is all about. His up-tempo style led the Panthers to a Sweet 16 appearance a year ago, and at the very least should provide some excitement inside the spacious confines of Thompson-Boling Arena.

It should also allow senior slasher Stanley Asumnu to finally thrive in a system that highlights his natural ability.

"This is going to help him at both ends of the floor because he's such a super athlete," Shay said of Asumnu. "I think you'll see some exciting plays from Stanley."

But with the lack of depth down low, accentuated more by the indefinite suspension of starting forward Andre Patterson, junior center Major Wingate will have to play more consistently than he did a year ago, when he averaged just five points per contest.

"Everybody's made good strides, but you can just see the potential Major Wingate has," said Shay. "He's really stepped up his work ethic."

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