Big Point in Vols' Favor

Tennessee's search to replace point guard C.J. Watson is the top priority for Bruce Pearl's staff after the current campaign closes, unless, of course, the search has already concluded.

Throughout the decade of the 90s the Vols wandered a hardwood wilderness without a true point guard to pace their attack. Brandon Wharton played well there at times, but was ultimately a very good shooting guard. Ditto for Tony Harris, who resembled a classic point guard in stature alone. Harris was quick with the ball in his hands and even quicker to put it up. Jon Higgins was a shooting guard who could direct the half-court offense, but lacked the handle to push the ball in transition.

The problem finally went away when Watson arrived four years ago, giving UT's offense its long-awaited rudder. Unfortunately, by that time, the talent otherwise had declined along with Tennessee's execution and point production.

Still Watson was the real deal as at the one guard, and he's steadily improved along the way. Given his head as a senior and four-year starter, he ran the floor like a thoroughbred in Pearl's transition offense. He was a key component in Tennessee's pressure package, a steady floor leader, a prodigious penetrator and solid shooter.

Suffice it to say, if Pearl wants to approximate the success of his first season on the Hill, he will need to find a way to get as much out of the point guard position as possible. Although there's no leading contender, there's no shortage of candidates. Jordan Howell saw limited playing time there this season. Dane Bradshaw came to Tennessee as a point guard and could move back there, although he played better as an undersized forward than he did a big point guard.

With the late signing period starting (April 12 to May 17), Tennessee has a scholarship to spend and are looking at several guards along with some post prospects. One guard prospect to garner a lot of attention is Ramar Smith, 6-3, 190, of Detroit King High School. He is rated among the nation's top 30 prospects by, but is regarded as a shooting guard.

Tennessee's next point guard could very well be early signee Marques Johnson, of Snider High School in Fort Wayne, Ind. The irony is Johnson rarely plays the point in high school, although his coach believes he could, if needed.

"He's been playing on the wing," said Snider Head Coach Ray Sims. "I don't necessarily have that one, two because there are times we put him on the ball, but in our scheme he's on the wing 90 percent of the time. We run a motion offense so he's out there handling the basketball and he is a perimeter player."

Johnson is a four-year starter and has helped pace Snider to the best run in school history during that time. He is expected to break the school scoring record during the post season. This year the Panthers are 14-7 and played in the Sectional on Thursday night.

"Marques is having a good year," said Sims, who is a 29-year coaching veteran. "He's leading our team in assists. People get so hung on the points. He leads our team in assists and steals and he's our second leading scorer. He's averaging three assists per game, five rebounds and he's averaging 16 points. He's averaging 2.4 steals per game."

Johnson has a many of the qualities you look for in a point guard including the vision to spot an open teammate and the willingness to pass up a shot.

"One of his best games really wasn't scoring wise," Sims explained, "but this year in our conference tournament he had 24 points, 16 rebounds, six assists and four steals when we went up against the No. 2 seed. I think that was his best game. So many times people look at best game just as how many points they scored."

Versatility is what makes Johnson a special player. In essence he has no glaring weaknesses, although he could become a better at the foul line.

"He can create shots off the dribble," said Sims. "This is why I talk about using him in different ways. I might use him one way and Coach Pearl might use him another. At the high school level each team might have two or three players that can really defend anybody. At the next level night in and night out the players are so much better. I think he has the ability to figure it out and learn how to create off the bounce."

Another factor in Johnson's favor is size. He was listed at 6-5, 185, when the Vols were recruiting him last fall, but has grown since to 6-foot-6, 210 pounds.

"He's gotten stronger," said Sims. "That's the one thing I've really seen. If you saw the pictures from where he was as a freshman to where he is now you can see he's really matured physically."

Size and strength at the point guard position becomes more important to Tennessee because the Vols have a small shooting guard in 6-foot-2 Chris Lofton, and a small forward in Bradshaw at 6-foot-3. Maybe they can call Johnson their power point.

Editor's Note: Marques Johnson will be featured in an in-depth story in the April issue of Rocky Top News. If you're not getting RTN you're only getting part of the story.

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