Ready for war?

Pre-conference play was a lot like basic training for Tennessee's heralded freshman basketball players. Now that they've developed camaraderie and learned to follow orders, the next challenge is hand-to-hand combat.

If you think that analogy is overly dramatic, you haven't talked to Chris Lofton. The Vols' sharpshooting junior guard says the four raw recruits had better be ready for battle Sunday at 4, when Tennessee (12-2) opens Southeastern Conference play against Mississippi State (9-4) at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"It's a war now," he said. "There are no easy nights in the SEC. Every team comes to play every night. Whether it's the worst team in the SEC or the best, you've got to be ready to play."

That raises the question: Are the Vols ready for SEC play?

"I think we're ready," junior guard JaJuan Smith said. "We're better than this time last year, and I think we're going into the SEC ready to play. We're better all around."

Asked how the Vols are better, Smith replied: "Our young guys ain't playing like freshmen no more. They're ready to play. We finished December undefeated (7-0), and that was a goal. Now that 2006 is over, we're going into the new year 0-0."

Senior forward Dane Bradshaw also believes the Vols are ready to begin SEC play.

"I think we're as ready as any other SEC team," he said. "We've played some tough competition. We've been in some close games. We've gotten better.

"Going into conference play, everyone's 0-0 and has a lot of confidence in their team. If you look around the SEC, there's no one that's really struggling right now. Everyone's very confident, and this is where you separate yourself."

The SEC put two teams in the NCAA Final Four last year – Florida and LSU – with the Gators taking home the national title. Bradshaw believes the league, top to bottom, may be even tougher in 2007. Mississippi State, which relied heavily on freshmen in 2005-06, is a prime example.

"When you look at the SEC, things are so different from last year," he said. "Some of the teams that were easier wins have improved now. Mississippi State struggled last year but all those guys are back and improved, and they've added some other people to their program."

Although the competition level is going up a notch, Bradshaw says the enjoyment level is going up a notch, too.

"It's just such a competitive conference, and this is the most fun part of the year," he said. "You get to play in some awesome environments that any competitive athlete would want to play in.... There's definitely no cupcake games anymore."

Like Lofton, Bradshaw believes Tennessee's freshmen will be surprised by the new level of intensity that characterizes SEC basketball. He believes they'll adjust, though.

"Ramar Smith and Duke Crews are the two freshman that have consistently improved," he said. "Every game they've done something better and better. They're learning from their mistakes. Wayne (Chism) and Josh (Tabb) proved themselves earlier in the season. Now Duke and Ramar are catching up and really showing their potential."

That potential needs to be maximized now that conference play has arrived. Basic training has ended. It's time to go to war.

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