Memphis' loss is UT's gain

Tennessee's basketball future just keeps getting brighter and brighter.

Despite a 22-8 record and an SEC East title, the Vols were the state's second-best college team in 2005-06. The University of Memphis beat the Big Orange head to head and earned a No. 1 seeding for the NCAA Tournament.

Since then, however, Tennessee has improved its roster by signing a top-five recruiting class. Conversely, the Tiger roster has taken a big hit. Two of the team's finest players have announced they are forgoing their remaining collegiate eligibility and making themselves available for the upcoming NBA Draft.

The two are forward Shawne Williams and guard Darius Washington. Both played key roles in the Tigers' 88-79 defeat of Tennessee last Jan. 18 in Memphis. Williams produced 21 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocked shots in 34 sterling minutes. Williams sank just 2 of 12 from the floor but still finished with 17 points and 5 assists in 29 minutes.

Memphis still has some outstanding players available for the 2006-07 season but its talent advantage over Tennessee is greatly diminished by the loss of Williams and Washington. The Vols' chances of being the best team in the state will be significantly enhanced if Williams and Washington follow through with their pro plans.

Tennessee's chances of being the best team in the SEC next winter also may be getting a boost. Conference champion LSU is about to lose standout freshman forward Tyrus Thomas, who also declared for the draft. Meanwhile, several NBA insiders believe reigning NCAA champ Florida will lose one or two underclassmen to the draft. Both 6-foot-11 Joakim Noah and 6-foot-8 forward Al Horford are projected as possible NBA lottery picks, even though both say they plan to return for the 2006-07 college season.

For what it's worth, lists Noah as the No. 1 prospect for the upcoming NBA Draft, with Thomas No. 2 and Horford No. 9.

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