"If you don't think he's playing point guard, look who has the ball in his hands coming up the floor," head coach Bruce Pearl said following Sunday's 99-65 blitz of Coppin State. "He's guarding inside but he's really playing point in a lot of ways. As we continue to evolve as a team, he'll continue to play point guard in more ways."
Dane Bradshaw has played point guard, off guard, small forward and power forward at Tennessee. He saw little action at point guard last year because senior C.J. Watson had a stellar season running the offense. Still, Bradshaw recorded 116 assists, just one less than Watson.
Now that four-year starter Watson is out of eligibility, the Vols have no one to run the attack. Junior Jordan Howell, freshman Ramar Smith and freshman Marques Johnson are all natural 2 guards trying to fill the lead-guard role. Moreover, Howell has been slowed by a fractured finger.
"Our point guard play needs to improve," Pearl said. "Ramar can play better. Having Dane back there with him helps him. And a lot of times we put the ball in Dane's hands. As a result, you see Dane with nine assists (vs Coppin State)."
Bradshaw, who has scored just six points in Tennessee's past three games, relishes his role as a set-up man for others.
"Penetrating is one thing I can do very well and get guys open shots," he said. "As hard as I try, I will always have a pass-first mentality. When I penetrate into the lane (teammates) are circling around me, continuing to move and cut because they know I'll find them."
Asked point-blank if he is playing power forward on defense and point on offense, however, Bradshaw hedged.
"I'm not sure," he said. "I really give the point guards a little bit of comfort when the fullcourt press comes along because, as a former point guard, I'd rather look behind me and see a 6-3 guy to help bring it up than a 6-10 center who's just going to throw it back to you. It helps break the pressure a little bit."
Although Bradshaw is filling more and more of the point-guard role, Pearl says that is not an indictment of Ramar Smith.
"We continue to work with him," the coach said. "There's more there (than he has shown). He's got to keep his confidence up. He's an unselfish player. If he was a selfish kid it would bother somebody like that more. But he has to play better for us to beat the better teams on our schedule. He understands that."
Howell, who played some as Watson's backup last season, is probably the closest Tennessee has to a natural point guard. He has been slow to heal from the preseason finger injury, however.
Pearl said Howell "did a lot of good things" vs. Coppin State, adding: "He pushed the break really well, shot it well. He looked comfortable. Certainly, he's not in a position where he can run the ball club yet because he missed five weeks of practice. Five weeks is a long time but it's great to have him back."
Whether it's Bradshaw, Howell, Ramar Smith or Marques Johnson, someone needs to provide steady play at the point for Tennessee. The Vols committed 26 turnovers in Game 2 vs. Fordham, 21 in Game 3 vs. UNC-Wilmington and 22 in Game 4 vs. Coppin State.
"My teams have historically turned it over a little bit more because of the tempo," Pearl said. "Last year was a bit unusual because of Bradshaw and C.J. being so outstanding with our assist/turnover ratio. We usually turn it over a little bit more, but not THIS much."
With upcoming NIT games against Butler (Wednesday) and either Gonzaga or North Carolina (Friday), Howell, Smith and Johnson need to elevate their play in a hurry. Bradshaw thinks the UT trio will do just that.
"Those guys have always stepped up to the level of competition," he said. "I'm anxious to see Ramar out there as the competition grows. He'll play well; I'm confident in that."