Developing depth

As he watched his Tennessee basketball team during preseason drills, new coach Bruce Pearl wasn't sure he had five players capable of starting, much less a few adequate reserves. As a result, his early workouts were somewhat tentative.

"The way we were practicing (it was obvious) Coach was scared to go too hard because he wanted to keep the top six or seven guys fresh," junior forward Dane Bradshaw recalled this week.

Pearl's lack of faith in the reserves was just as apparent in the season's early weeks. Even when he inserted a sub into the lineup, he rarely left him there for very long.

"It's a matter of doing well with a small window of opportunity," Bradshaw said. "When you get in the game for a couple of minutes at a time, it's kind of hit or miss. Fortunately, they (reserves) played well. That helped their confidence and the coaching staff's confidence."

As a result, Pearl's fears have been alleviated somewhat. The Vols' depth gradually has improved to a point where the coach feels reasonably comfortable using nine players.

The key reserves, without doubt, are 6-2 JaJuan Smith on the perimeter and 6-7 Andre Patterson on the inside. Smith is averaging 8.0 points and 2.5 assists per game. Patterson is averaging 10.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.

"Those guys are both averaging around 10 points per game," Pearl noted recently. "That is some firepower coming off the bench."

Smith had a 16-point outing in Tennessee's monumental win at Texas. He has provided such a spark off the bench that starting point guard C.J. Watson has seen his minutes drop from 34.9 per game last season to 30.7 this season.

Patterson produced a 21-point performance against Louisiana Lafayette and a 14-rebound effort against Alabama A&M. He is playing nearly as many minutes (21.9 per game) as starting starting center Major Wingate (24.8).

The Vols also are getting contributions from 6-2 Jordan Howell and 6-9 freshman Ryan Childress, each averaging around eight minutes per game.

Howell is hitting 62.5 percent of his field goal tries (10 of 16) and 58.3 percent of his 3-pointers (7 of 12), leading the team in each category. He also has provided solid floor play. Childress has 19 rebounds in just 83 minutes of action this season and has improved steadily as a post defender.

The fact nine players are now contributing on a regular basis is one of the reasons Tennessee carries a 9-1 record into Sunday's game at South Carolina.

"Now we have so many more weapons out there," Bradshaw noted. "Everybody's playing with confidence, all the way through the bench."

In addition to relaxing Pearl, a capable bench helps relax Tennessee's starters. They know they can take an occasional breather without risking disastrous results.

"It just really relieves a lot of pressure," Bradshaw said. "Major will give his all and not be scared to point to the bench and tell ‘em he needs a sub. Everybody's stepping in."

Some players feel insulted having to come off the bench. That does not appear to be the case with the Vols' back-ups. They seem content with their relief roles.

"We've got guys on the bench that could easily start, so we're just going with what's working best for the team," Bradshaw said. "Those guys come in and give us a lift. Somewhere in the game we're going to get a big momentum swing, whether it's from the starters or someone off the bench."

Smith and Patterson have proved themselves to be players Pearl can count on night in and night out. If Howell and Childress continue to play well off the bench, Tennessee's chances of continued success improve markedly.

"I'm not even sure Jordan played in the first exhibition game, and he's really worked himself into the rotation," Bradshaw noted. "He's playing with a lot of confidence, and that's a key guy for us. And Ryan Childress continues to come along.

"If we can get nine or 10 deep and have that many weapons that'll help us a whole lot."

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