Guarded optimism

With each team playing essentially a four-guard lineup, Saturday's Tennessee-Vanderbilt game was pretty much The Battle of the Backcourts. The Vol backcourt prevailed, as the 84-57 final score clearly suggests.

Big Orange guards JaJuan Smith (4 of 8), Chris Lofton (4 of 7), Ramar Smith (3 of 8), Dane Bradshaw (0 of 2), Josh Tabb (4 of 4) and Jordan Howell (3 of 7) combined to make 18 of 36 shots from the field.

Conversely, Vandy guards Shan Foster (5 of 14), Derrick Byars (3 of 13), Dan Cage (2 of 6), Alex Gordon (1 of 6), Jermaine Beale (1 of 4) and George Drake (0 of 1) combined to sink just 12 of 44 shots.

The difference was even more dramatic from 3-point range, as UT's guards combined to hit 47 percent (8 of 17) to Vandy's 25 percent (6 of 24).

Noting that Tennessee's guards are "getting an identity," head coach Bruce Pearl praised their performance against their Commodore counterparts.

"To have Byars and Foster and Gordon and Cage – their four good shooters – shoot the percentage they did was very significant with our guards' halfcourt defense," Pearl said. "That was one of the better defensive efforts you've seen from our team."

The best news for UT's backcourt was the obvious improvement in Lofton. In just his second game back from a four-game absence due to a sprained ankle, he hit 2 of 4 from beyond the arc and contributed 16 points.

"He's good to go. If he wasn't good to go he wouldn't be out there," Pearl said. "We played Chris 26 minutes. We played him 21 last game.... He made a nice progression."

Junior JaJuan Smith nailed 3 of 5 shots beyond the arc vs. Vandy to finish with 11 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. Freshman Ramar Smith had a good game, too, recording 9 points, 4 assists and 4 steals.

Tennessee also got solid contributions from reserves Tabb and Howell, who have been playing more lately due to Lofton's injury. Pearl said he met with Tabb and Howell last week and gave basically the same lecture to each.

"Take advantage of these minutes," he said. "You've got 'em. They're yours."

The coach meant the comment as an inducement, not a threat.

"It wasn't like 'If you don't, I'm going to put someone else out there' because he (Tabb) is our guy and we want him out there," Pearl said. "But he's got to demonstrate to me through his play that he's going to be a big part of it. He was very productive (vs. Vandy). He was more aggressive."

Howell was more aggressive, too, after being a reluctant shooter most of the season. Howell misfired on four of his first five shots Saturday and was visibly upset after missing a wide-open 3 early in the second half. Recognizing as much, Pearl was in his ear at the next timeout.

"I kinda' was mad I missed it," Howell said. "He told me in the huddle 'That's a great shot. If you get that look again, knock it down.'"

Howell followed orders ... twice ... draining a couple of 3-pointers that put the game on ice.

"When Jordan missed a shot or two, I wanted to make sure he took the next one," Pearl recalled. "He didn't hesitate, and he knocked them down."

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