Role play

The Tennessee Basketball Vols are on a roll because they know their roles.

There are several reasons Bruce Pearl's troops carry a 6-0 record into Thursday's game with Oklahoma State in Oklahoma City (6 p.m. EST tip-off on ESPN2). One of the key ones is that each Vol knows what he's supposed to do and is doing his job effectively. And, as usually happens with successful teams, a few players are providing benefits that go beyond the scope of their role.

Chris Lofton's role is to loosen up opposing defenses by bombing home long-range jumpers. He's doing just that , leading the Southeastern Conference in 3-point baskets per game and averaging a team-high 17.8 points per game. Surprisingly, Lofton also ranks among the SEC leaders in steals.

C.J. Watson's role is to run the offense efficiently. He's doing so in splendid fashion, ranking among the league leaders with 5.3 assists per game. He has committed just four turnovers in his last three games combined, giving him 32 assists, 14 turnovers and a 2.28-to-1 assist/turnover ratio that also ranks among the SEC leaders. As an added bonus, Watson leads the league in 3-point accuracy, hitting 60.9 percent.

Dane Bradshaw is UT's ultimate role player. Forced to fill the power forward slot at 6-feet-4, he has scrapped his way to a team-high 7.3 rebounds per game. In his secondary role as the backup point guard he's averaging 3.8 assists per game, one of the top 10 marks in the conference.

Major Wingate's role is to give Tennessee a presence in the post, so opponents can't blanket Lofton and Watson on the perimeter. Wingate's doing so by averaging 12.5 points per game, nearly three times last season's mark. He's also playing much better post defense than he did a year ago.

Stanley Asumnu's role is to provide a little scoring, a little rebounding and a lot of defense. He's succeeding on all counts, averaging 10.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. An unexpected plus: He's playing with more poise and fewer turnovers than in previous years.

JaJuan Smith's role is to provide a spark off the bench, and he's been a godsend the past two games – scoring 9 points against Appalachian State and 12 against Texas. The two 3-pointers he drained in Tennessee's 23-5 start against the Longhorns were huge. Smith's quickness and intensity on defense have also made their mark.

Andre Patterson's role is to boost the post game when Wingate isn't producing. Patterson's numbers tell the story: In the past five games he's come off the bench to score 21, 10, 11, 11 and 12 points, while hitting 60 percent (24 of 40) of his field goal tries. Oh, yeah, he grabbed a season-high 14 rebounds in Game 4 vs. Murray State.

In addition to the seven guys who play most of Tennessee's minutes, sophomore guard Jordan Howell and freshman forward Ryan Childress are filling their roles with unexpected effectiveness. Howell has hit some clutch 3s and given the Vols surprisingly efficient floor play in recent games. Childress has provided a big body willing to bang underneath the backboards. He fouled out in just 14 minutes in Game 6 at Texas.

Clearly, Tennessee's players know their roles and are filling them in fine fashion. That's one of the main reasons the Vols are unbeaten thus far.

"That's where it starts, everybody knowing their role, then going from there," Watson said. "Everybody has confidence – Chris … myself … JaJuan's coming off the bench shooting the ball well … Stan's playing good … Dane's playing great."

The Vols never played their roles better than in last Saturday's 95-78 upset of Texas. The scorers provided points. The guards provided assists. The reserves provided lifts off the bench. Everyone provided hustle and ball security (just 10 turnovers as a team). The result: The most lopsided road win against a top-10 opponent in school history.

"Everybody contributed," head coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show. "Jordan Howell played eight minutes, so we almost had nine guys with double-digit minutes.

"Ryan Childress gets a basket, makes both free throws, doesn't turn the ball over, gets a couple of rebounds, has a great backdoor assist to Stanley. It's wonderful that Ryan was a factor in this win.

"Major played well. He's 4 for 6 (from the field), 4 for 4 from the foul line, two assists, one turnover, one steal. He didn't rebound but (6-10 Texas standout LaMarcus) Aldridge only had three offensive rebounds, and I promise you he didn't have one against Major."

"Andre didn't have a very good game because he was in foul trouble. But he's three for three from the field and six for six from the foul line.

"Everybody contributed, and that's a wonderful feeling."

And that's a big reason the Vols are 6-0.

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