Optimism abounds in UT hoops

It's little wonder that University of Tennessee basketball fans can hardly wait for the 2007-08 season to begin. There is every reason to believe Bruce Pearl's Big Orange Express is on track for great things.

Consider:

- The 2006-07 Vols led eventual national champ Florida by 27 points in a late-season game at Knoxville and ultimately won by 10.

- The Vols romped by 27 points (84-57) against a Vanderbilt team that finished 22-12 and ranked in the top 25.

- The Vols led Final Four runner-up Ohio State by 20 only to lose by a point in the NCAA Sweet 16. The Vols also lost by two at Columbus during the regular season.

- Except for Dane Bradshaw, the top nine players from last year's team will be back for 2007-08. And the Vols will be reinforced by the availability of signees Cameron Tatum and Brian Williams, Arizona transfer J.P. Prince and (perhaps) Iowa transfer Tyler Smith.

Given Tennessee's hardwood futility for much of the past 20 years, it's a little difficult to think of the Vols as a top-10 program. But they aren't that far away. In a piece entitled "Parrish's Top 25 (plus one)," Gary Parrish of cbs.sportsline.com listed Tennessee No. 13 in his final college basketball ratings for 2006-07.

Parrish had UT ranked No. 21 heading into the Sweet 16, so the Vols clearly won some respect with their inspired first-half play vs. Ohio State. In assessing Tennessee's finish, Parrish noted that "Chris Lofton scored at least 20 points in all three NCAA Tournament games."

Lofton, quite possibly the finest pure shooter in the game, recently announced he will be back for 2007-08. So, if the Vols can find a suitable replacement for Bradshaw, they have a chance to be outstanding in the season ahead.

By the way, eight teams Tennessee played last season showed up in Parrish's final rankings. Florida (35-5) and Ohio State (35-4), of course, ranked 1-2. North Carolina (31-7) checked in at No. 6 and Memphis (33-4) at No. 7. Vandy (22-12) was No. 15, followed by Butler (29-7) at 16, Texas (25-10) at 18 and Virginia (21-11) at 23.

In 11 games against these ranked opponents Tennessee recorded 5 wins and 6 losses. The Vols were 3-1 in the last four outings, however, and would've been 4-0 if not for the second-half collapse against Ohio State.

No wonder UT hoops fans can't wait for next season to arrive.


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