UT loses game, not hope

The season ends; the dream continues. Thursday night's 85-84 loss to Ohio State in the NCAA Sweet 16 didn't stop the Tennessee basketball program's march toward national prominence; it merely interrupted it.

The Volunteers will be back in the national title hunt next season with a team that features more bodies, more experience, more size and more quickness. Except for senior forward Dane Bradshaw – Mr. Intangibles – the top nine players return for 2007-08. Moreover, those returnees will be a year older, a year stronger and a year smarter.

In the aftermath of that gut-wrenching loss to the top-ranked Buckeyes, it's easy for fans to focus on the negative. Once the pain subsides, though, they will realize the future is brighter than it has ever been. Consider:

All three of Tennessee's "bigs" return next season. Wayne Chism (6-9) went toe to toe Thursday night with the best big man in college basketball and earned a draw. Fellow freshman Duke Crews (6-7) showed flashes of brilliance in 2006-07 and just needs a little more consistency to be a star. Sophomore Ryan Childress (6-9) may be the most improved player in college basketball. Without his clutch 3-pointers, Tennessee would've lost to Ohio State by double digits instead of a single point. In fact, without his clutch 3s, Tennessee doesn't get past Virginia in the Round of 32.

Chism, Crews and Childress should benefit in 2007-08 from the arrival of another big body. Brian Williams, a 6-9, 300-pound November signee, reportedly is very raw but Childress was raw when he arrived on campus, too.

The undersized Vols get still more "length" from the addition of 6-8 Arizona transfer J.P. Prince and 6-6 prep school signee Cameron Tatum.

Prince is a jack of all trades who can play point, off guard, small forward and even power forward. His versatility will provide Pearl with a level of flexibility the Vol coach has not enjoyed previously.

Likewise, Tatum's combination of length, quickness and athleticism should make him a great fit for Pearl's high-octane offense and pressing defense.

Prince and Tatum will be joining an already potent Tennessee perimeter corps. Chris Lofton, All-America as a junior, is the NCAA's premier 3-point shooter and a 20 points-per-game scoring machine. JaJuan Smith, another junior, is an explosive performer who routinely serves as a catalyst on both offense and defense. Freshman Josh Tabb is a dynamic defender who brings tremendous energy and effort to the floor, a la Bradshaw.

Ramar Smith will be back for another year at the point position, after growing into the role as a true freshman. He is improving as a distributor and is virtually unstoppable on the dribble-drive (unless, of course, you have 7-foot Greg Oden stationed under the basket). Steady backup Jordan Howell also returns for 2007-08 after playing better than many observers anticipated in '06-07.

Obviously, Bradshaw's leadership, savvy and passing skills will be missed next winter. Still, his successor – whoever that might be – is almost certain to stand taller, run faster, jump higher and shoot better.

Finally, Pearl used Tennessee's disappointing Round 2 loss to Wichita State in the 2006 NCAA Tournament as a great rallying point for 2006-07. It's a safe bet he'll make Thursday's Sweet 16 loss to Ohio State an even greater motivational tool for 2007-08.

The season ends; the dream continues.

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