Vol freshmen are progressing

Ramar Smith started at the point in Tennessee's basketball opener vs. Middle Tennessee but was outplayed by backup Marques Johnson. Duke Crews started in the post but was outplayed by backup Wayne Chism.

The four freshmen had their good moments and their bad moments in Game 1 but the two backups seemed much more comfortable in their roles than the two starters did. Perhaps that's to be expected.

Smith had more turnovers (3) than assists (2) and sank just 1 of 5 from the floor. Johnson proved considerably steadier in his 18-minute relief stint, making his only shot and producing 4 assists with zero turnovers.

Likewise, Crews struggled as a starter (2 of 6 from the field, 5 points, 2 rebounds in 21 minutes), whereas Chism starred as a reserve (4 of 6 shooting, 10 points, 7 rebounds in 11 minutes).

Though he called UT's 83-52 victory "a very good start," head coach Bruce Pearl conceded, "That's not to say that the starters are necessarily our best combination right now."

Pearl may try a different lineup tonight against Fordham in first-round NIT Tipoff Tournament play at Nashville. He admits having much to learn about the 2006-07 Vols.

"I knew as little about my team to start this season as any I've coached," Pearl said. "I've been coaching 15 years, and I knew less this year because of how young we were and how little our exhibition season helped us."

The head man anticipated that his heralded freshmen would experience growing pains, and those didn't wait long to surface. After two strong showings in preseason exhibitions, Smith struggled noticeably against Middle Tennessee.

"I thought Ramar wasn't sharp," Pearl said. "The focus of playing frantically defensively, where he needs to pick up his pace, and playing solidly offensively, is a tough combination. I think he struggled with the basketball. He had a couple of turnovers that there was just no reason for. He's just got to play with a little more intensity, a little more attention to detail and a little less loose. But when Ramar gets a little bit more focused ..."

Fortunately for Tennessee, Johnson provided a steadying influence at the point while spelling Smith.

"Marques had four assists and no turnovers, which is really good," Pearl noted. "When Marques starts to defend the rebound better, he really is going to be a fine point guard for us."

Like Smith, Crews distinguished himself in the exhibition games but seemed jittery in the regular-season opener. His erratic play was offset, however, by Chism's outstanding work off the bench.

"Wayne can fill a stat sheet," Pearl said. "For him to do what he did in 11 minutes is unbelievable."

Counting reserve wing Josh Tabb (13 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals in 19 minutes), three of UT's freshmen played exceptionally well in Game 1, while two struggled a bit. That wasn't surprising.

"They're doing very well," senior forward Dane Bradshaw said. "We ask so much of them. They're going to to continue to grow but I'm very impressed with them and their maturity out there on the court on a big-time stage."

GAME NOTES: Fordham, like Tennessee, is 1-0. The Rams opened with a 70-68 defeat of Sacred Heart last Friday night. Fordham's best player is 6-8, 233-pound junior forward Bryant Dunston, a preseason All-Atlantic 10 pick who averaged 16.1 points and 7.6 rebounds last season. Marcus Stout, a 6-4 junior guard, averaged 13 points and 2.8 assists last season.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories