UT turns apathy to excitement

When Tony Jones arrived in Knoxville as a member of Bruce Pearl's coaching staff, he noticed something a bit different, a bit unusual. The University of Tennessee is THE state school, but not many blue-chip basketball players wanted to become Vols.

``I think it was a level of apathy with a lot of players, apathy with some of the state-wide players,'' Jones said.

When Jones and Pearl arrived, the state was loaded with talent. Tennessee didn't get much of it. The Tyler Smith case is well documented, although he is enrolled at UT after attending a prep school and Iowa. Jamont Gordon, one of the state's two best players, went to Mississippi State.

The next year, the Vols lost out on Brandan Wright (North Carolina), Thaddeus Young (Georgia Tech) and Willie Kemp (Memphis). Wright will be an NBA lottery pick this year. Young declared for the draft. Kemp is a solid player at Memphis.

Tennessee went 0-for-3 with the top three in the state.

But they did get one standout, 6-9 Wayne Chism.

``That's why we have nothing but great things to say about Wayne Chism,'' Jones said. ``He took us at our word. He thought Tennessee could be a top-10 program and he trusted this coaching staff.''

Jones projects Chism will be an All-American.

And because of Chism and Chris Lofton and Tennessee's amazing success the last two years, blue-chip players in the state – as well as nationally – are not apathetic about the Vols.

``We've been treated with open arms all throughout the country since we got on the winning track,'' Jones said. ``Doors that were not necessarily open when we got to Tennessee are open now. That's attributed to our players and the success we've had over the last two years.

``And obviously Bruce Pearl is a high-energy, electric basketball coach. And our style of play is conducive to the way young players like to play the game right now. So I would say all of those components played a big factor in being able to garner a top-10 (recruiting) class (in 2006).''

Former UT coach Buzz Peterson also said he was surprised at the apathy around the state toward Tennessee basketball when he arrived. The Vols had won 89 games during Jerry Green's four years, and Kevin O'Neill had recruited well, but Green and his staff apparently lost touch with in-state schools, and that indifference led to a number of high-profile players signing elsewhere.

But now, things have changed. Tennessee can go against Memphis and Kentucky and Florida and have a reasonable chance to win a recruiting battle.

Jones said there are only a few consistently elite programs in basketball – Kansas, UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana, Duke, North Carolina and Florida, to name a few.

``That's our goal, to try to get our program to that level,'' said Jones, recently rated one of the top five assistant coaches in the nation.

``It's going to take a lot of hard work, but we're committed to getting the type student-athlete that's gonna enable us to stay on top or compete for championships and get to the NCAA Tournament each and every year.''

As Jones put it: ``We've got to try to keep up with the Joneses.''

Interestingly, Jones said he's glad Florida coach Billy Donovan didn't go pro. Many Vol fans would argue it would be of benefit to UT's program for Billy the Kid to work his trade elsewhere.

``I don't think it hurts us that Billy Donovan didn't leave Florida,'' Jones said. ``It lends more credibility to the league to have a personality like Billy.''

Florida should always be competitive with Donovan. Kentucky should be improved. Arkansas has good talent. Mississippi State returns the key parts of its West Division winning team. LSU always recruits well.

``We have to keep on doing what we're doing, keep on competing, keep on winning at home and keep on playing a top-notch schedule,'' Jones said.

For only the second time since the NCAA Tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the Vols advanced to the Sweet 16 last year. Many project UT to be a top-10 team this season and Final Four threat, particularly with Tyler Smith now eligible.

Smith has displayed his immense talent recently in the Pilot Rocky Top League played at Bearden High School on Mondays and Wednesdays.

``I told him the other day, `You got a little Bron, Bron (LeBron James) in you,''' Jones said. ``He's strong, athletic and he can handle the basketball. I'm most impressed with Tyler because he's unselfish and he will mesh right in with his teammates. … I think he's going to have a great career here.''

Jones said Arizona transfer J.P. Prince reminds him of Scottie Pippen and that center Brian Williams, who has dropped about 80 pounds to 266, has athletic ability and improved stamina and could play 10-15 minutes per game.

``He's a good defender and gives us that size and interior toughness that we so desire,'' Jones said. ``He's from the Bronx, New York. He's no-nonsense.''

When it comes to recruiting, UT is no-nonsense.

The Vols are making inroads in-state. They've got a kid from the Bronx, a transfer from Arizona, a transfer from Iowa, a player named Duke recruited by Duke.

And now, Tennessee is a preseason top-10 program and a Final Four threat.

How things have changed in two short years.

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