Donovan Says UT Talent Ranks with SEC's Best

A few days after Tennessee upset second-ranked and undefeated Florida, Gators coach Billy Donovan said the Vols have about as much talent as any team in the SEC.

Right. And it's snowing in Gainesville.

Tennessee doesn't have near the talent of Florida. The Vols can't match LSU. Kentucky, Alabama, Vanderbilt and Arkansas have more talent than Tennessee. At best, UT's talent is seventh in the SEC.

``I thought (former coach) Buzz (Peterson) did a heckuva job recruiting in terms of having good quality players in the program,'' Donovan said. ``I think the talent level is just about as good as anybody in the league because of C.J. Watson and Dane Bradshaw.''

Say what?

Donovan likes Watson because he's a four-year starter. Donovan likes Bradshaw because he has experience and can play more than one position.

Donovan is right about Watson. He's wrong about Bradshaw. And did he forget the Vols' have Chris Lofton, who shredded Florida for 29 points?

Watson is the best point guard in the league. He is averaging 15.9 points, 4.2 assists, shooting 40.7 percent from 3-point range and 47.4 percent overall. His assist-turnover ratio is fourth in the best and he's averaging 2.33 steals per game. He's in the top 10 of the SEC in each of those categories.

Bradshaw is a different deal. He wouldn't start for most teams in the SEC. How many teams would use him at power forward? He doesn't handle the ball well enough to be a point guard, doesn't shoot well enough to be an off guard, isn't quick enough to guard anybody on the perimeter, and isn't athletic enough to play small forward.

So, Bruce Pearl turned Bradshaw into a 6-foot-4 power forward who ranks among the SEC's top 15 in rebounding (6.3) and leads in assist-turnover ratio (66 assists to 22 turnovers).

How many other coaches saw Bradshaw as a power forward?

Donovan said UT has benefited from having experience. The Vols start two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore. But that doesn't translate into talent.

``So many teams have had early departures and have had to rely on inexperience and youthfulness,'' Donovan said.

Not Tennessee. Still, the Vols lost two of their top three scorers from a 14-win team and their leading inside scorer – Wingate at 11.5 points – isn't assertive and isn't a focal point of the offense. In other words, if UT needs a basket, it doesn't design a play for Wingate.

Lofton is the best shooter in the SEC, if not the nation. He's making 44 percent of his long-range attempts. But that's not the whole story. It's when and how. He hits 3s at clutch moments and he does it under duress. It's one thing to make an uncontested 3-pointer. It's another to do it with a hand in your face.

Watson and Lofton comprise the best backcourt in the SEC and arguably one of the top five in the nation.

Beyond that, UT doesn't have many other players who could start in the SEC. Wingate is too soft. Andre Patterson is too inconsistent. JuJuan Smith is a former walk-on, although he has developed into one of the top sixth men in the league. Bradshaw is productive because of determination and hustle, not talent. Stanley Asumnu is an athlete, not a basketball player.

And Donovan thinks this group is about as talented as any team in the SEC?

Gimme a break.

If the Vols had Jamont Gordon and Tyler Smith, you'd have an argument. Without them, you don't.

Preseason, I picked Tennessee to win 14 games, go 6-10 in the SEC and be a borderline NIT team.

I need a midseason mulligan. Now, I'd be surprised if the Vols don't go at least 8-8 in the SEC, win at least 17 games and make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years.

Tennessee's RPI, according to CBS, is No. 3. The Vols are 3-1 in the SEC. If they go 6-6 the rest of the season, they're a cinch at 9-7 to get a NCAA berth. If they go 5-7 in the SEC the rest of the way, their RPI should remain in the top 20, which should ensure a berth in the Big Dance.

The next four games – Mississippi State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss -- are crucial. The Vols should win three of those. Down the stretch, they play on the road against Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Vanderbilt.

It should be interesting for a team short on talent but long on heart and coaching.

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