Vol hoops gets boost

Only one team finished ahead of Tennessee in the 2005-06 Southeastern Conference basketball race, and that team is about to lose another of its star players.

The LSU Tigers, who won the SEC West and SEC overall titles with a 14-2 league record, will be without Tyrus Thomas in 2006-07. Thomas announced today that he will bypass his final three seasons of collegiate eligibility to declare for the National Basketball Association Draft.

Thomas can reconsider and return to the Tigers if he does not hire an agent. However, early projections suggest he will be a lottery pick in the upcoming draft, so returning would be an ill-advised move financially.

Thomas, a 6-foot-9 forward with incredible leaping ability, averaged 8.9 rebounds per game as a freshman last winter, ranking third among all SEC players in that category. He also averaged 3.0 blocked shots per game, leading the conference in that category.

One of Thomas' best games came against Tennessee on Jan. 14, when he just missed a triple-double – finishing with 17 points, 9 rebounds and 9 blocks. He hit 7 of 7 shots from the field that evening, helping spur the Tigers to an 88-74 defeat of the Vols.

LSU also must face the 2006-07 season without standout point guard Darrel Mitchell. Mitchell ranked fourth among SEC players in steals (1.88 per game), fourth in 3-pointers (2.50 per game), fifth in 3-point percentage (40.8), sixth in scoring (16.9 points per game) and seventh in assists (4.25 per game) as a senior last winter. He also ranked second in minutes played (37.44 per game) and eighth in assist/turnover ratio (1.45 to 1).

Although the Tigers expect to return the SEC's premier big man in 6-foot-9, 300-pound Glen "Baby" Davis, they are sure to miss Mitchell and Thomas a great deal. Mitchell ran the offense, spearheaded the defense and provided the leadership in 2005-06. Thomas was such an athletic force on the inside that he took considerable pressure off of Davis.

Whereas LSU probably will be a little less talented in 2006-07, Tennessee appears likely to be much more talented than a year ago. The Vols recently put the finishing touch on a top-five recruiting class by signing 6-foot-2 guard Ramar Smith of Detroit. He joins a November signing class that featured 6-foot-7 Duke Crews, 6-foot-9 Wayne Chism, 6-foot-6 Marques Johnson and 6-foot-4 Josh Tabb. Crews, Chism and Johnson – like Smith – are regarded as top-50 prospects.

Tennessee, which won the SEC East last winter with a 12-4 league mark, is losing three 2005-06 players to graduation – point guard C.J. Watson, forward Andre Patterson and forward Stanley Asumnu – but only Watson was a full-time starter.

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