Who's UT hoops' most improved?

You have to admire the University of Tennessee basketball staff. For one thing, Bruce Pearl and his assistants present no Most Valuable Player award. What better way could there be to underscore the importance of the team over the individual?

Secondly, you have to admire Pearl & Company for dividing the Lowell Blanchard Most Improved Award between Ryan Childress and JaJuan Smith at Saturday night's awards banquet. Just about everyone on the team qualified for Most Improved consideration.

Certainly, Childress' development from a foul-prone last resort into a dependable backup at two positions (low post, power forward) was almost startling. He increased his minutes from 6 per game to 16, his scoring average from 1.2 to 5.6, his rebounding average from 1.2 to 4.0 and his shooting percentage from 34.6 to 45.7.

A comparison of Smith's 2005-06 and 2006-07 numbers is equally staggering. His playing time increased just five minutes per game (from 24 to 29), yet he raised his scoring average from 9.5 to 15.2 and his rebound average from 3.1 to 4.5. He bumped his shooting percentage from 37.7 to 45.5 and his free-throw percentage from 56.9 to 72.9.

However, you also could make a strong case for these Vols as Most Improved:

Chris Lofton, though sidelined for four games and limited in several more by a severe ankle sprain, went from 17.2 points per game to 20.8, from 46.6 percent field-goal shooting to 47.9, and from good player to SEC Player of the Year. By adding the dribble-drive to his repertoire, he also boosted his free-throw total from 60 to 159.

Jordan Howell went from 7.8 minutes per game to 18.3, from zero starts to six and from 1.9 points per game to 3.9.

Dane Bradshaw, though plagued by tendinitis in both shoulders, raised his assist total from 116 to 165 and his steal total from 56 to 67. His hustle and intangibles earned him recognition as captain of SI.com's "All-Glue Team."

Besides the Most Improved, other awards announced Saturday night were:

The Burchfield-Moss Most Courageous Award: Lofton, for battling back from the serious ankle injury

Team Before Self Award: Howell and Ramar Smith

John Stucky Lifter of the Year: Childress, for his dedicated work in the weight room

The Thornton Athletics Student Life Center Awards: Bradshaw (highest grade point average), Justin Jackson (Most Improved Academically) and Wayne Chism (Most Consistent, Academics and Attitude).

All things considered, 2006-07 was a great year in UT basketball. The Vols went 24-11, posting the second-most victories in school history. They ranked fourth nationally in attendance by drawing 19,661 fans per game and they advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16. Lofton was a second-team All-American, while Chism, Ramar Smith and Duke Crews were named to the SEC All-Freshman Team.

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