'Guarded' optimism

As the 2006-07 basketball season approached, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl knew Chris Lofton would provide points. He knew fellow guard JaJuan Smith would provide big plays in transition offense and fullcourt defense.

What Pearl didn't know was what to expect – if anything – from the other four guards. Junior Jordan Howell was a little-used backup to C.J. Watson in 2005-06 who had never played meaningful minutes. Freshmen Ramar Smith, Josh Tabb and Marques Johnson had never played at all.

Eleven games into the season, Pearl has been pleasantly surprised by the guard play. No wonder. Johnson has dropped out of the playing rotation and appears headed for a redshirt year but the other three are playing pretty well.

Howell has won the starting job at point guard. Although he's scoring just 3.1 points per game and shooting a mere 32 percent from the field (26 percent from 3-point range), he is proving to be a dependable ball-handler. He has 22 assists and just 8 turnovers to date. He has committed a mere 5 turnovers in his 5 starts.

Ramar Smith has settled in as Howell's backup. His numbers are mediocre – 5.5 points per game, a 36.5 shooting percentage, a 20-percent mark from beyond the arc and a team-high 33 turnovers. However, he has dished out 24 assists and is averaging 2.9 rebounds per game. He scored a career-high 15 points last Saturday against Western Kentucky and has the penetration skills to break down a defense.

"Ramar's good around the basket," Pearl noted following Monday's 79-77 upset of Oklahoma State. "He can score around there. Now that classes are over, Ramar's getting in the gym again. He's back to working on his skills, getting where he needs to be.

"You can watch him becoming cerebral, watch him making better decisions. He's still a work in progress but, between Jordan Howell and Ramar, they're giving us good, solid point-guard play."

Tabb has assumed the role of sixth man, backing up Lofton and JaJuan Smith at both wing spots. The 6-4 rookie is averaging 3.3 points and 2.6 rebounds per game, while shooting 46.7 percent from the floor and 37.5 from 3-point range. A superior defender, he has 11 steals through 11 games. He played 24 minutes against Memphis without allowing the men he guarded to score.

The five guards – Lofton, Howell, JaJuan Smith, Ramar Smith and Tabb – did quite a job defensively Monday night, limiting OSU's JamesOn Curry to seven shots while forcing him to commit 6 turnovers.

"For JamesOn Curry to only get seven shots," Pearl said, "those guards are doing a terrific job of making those touches challenging. I'm encouraged by the defensive effort and effectiveness of five guards out there.

"Jordan Howell, Ramar Smith, JaJuan Smith, Chris Lofton and Josh Tabb can all defend."

They can all score and rebound, too. As a result, Pearl is approaching the New Year with a 9-2 record and "guarded" optimism.

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