Better or worse?

One year ago, a senior-dominated 2005-06 Tennessee basketball team entered Southeastern Conference play with a 9-1 pre-conference record. The Vols went on to win 10 of their first 11 league games en route to a 22-8 record.

One year later, a freshman-dominated 2006-07 Tennessee team enters SEC play with a 12-2 record. Based on the early returns, how does this year's team compare to last year's?

"I think we're a lot deeper and a lot more athletic," said junior point guard Jordan Howell, who is sidelined by a broken bone in his right hand. "I think we can run a lot better. Top to bottom, we're more athletic – from JaJuan Smith, who is an explosive athlete, to Ryan Childress, who came back as a better athlete.

"Then you add great (freshman) athletes like Duke Crews, Ramar Smith, Wayne Chism and Josh Tabb. I think we have a lot more athletes, which I think has enabled us to become a better defensive team. And I think we'll continue to improve defensively as the year goes on."

Junior wing Chris Lofton agrees that Tennessee's depth is much better than it was at this time last year.

"I think we're a lot deeper," he said. "Last year we played six or seven guys. This year we play eight or nine guys. I think that's been really good."

Better depth has provided Tennessee with better balance. The Vols are getting greater contributions from a greater variety of players this season.

"It's no telling who's going to bring it," JaJuan Smith said. "One night it might be Chris. Another night it might be Ryan Childress. That keeps our opponents off guard."

Another key difference between the 2005-06 and the 2006-07 Vols is how they are perceived by opponents. Last year's team was viewed as an also-ran for much of the season. This year's team is perceived as a dangerous opponent.

"This year everyone's looking at us to win," JaJuan Smith said. "We ain't the underdog now, so everybody's got a chip on their shoulder and trying to beat us. We won't sneak up on anybody now.

"We have to go in knowing the other team's going to be ready to play. They ain't going to take us lightly, so we've got to step up every night."

Although the Vol roster is younger than a year ago, assistant coach Jason Shay believes the 2006-07 team is more mature than last year's in terms of its familiarity with Bruce Pearl's offensive and defensive schemes.

"We're a year older in the system," Shay said. "We've got a good blend of veterans to help the freshmen and we've got a little more depth than a year ago. The combination of depth and the added year of maturity for the veterans has helped the freshmen mature maybe a little faster than we anticipated."

There is no doubt that the success of the 2005-06 team has carried over into 2006-07. Still, this year's team deserves credit for maintaining the momentum by beating No. 16 Memphis, No. 15 Oklahoma State and talented Texas en route to a 12-2 start.

"To win some ball games against quality opponents goes a long way," Shay said. "Hopefully, that taught us some lessons we can take into SEC play."

SEC play starts Sunday at 4, when the Vols host Mississippi State at Thompson-Boling Arena.

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