Howell about that?

Two little letters have made one huge difference for a Tennessee basketball player.

The player in question: Jordan Howell. The letters in question: L and I.

Once known as a liability on defense, the soft-spoken senior's hard work now has him known for his ability on defense. Although he lacks the length of a J.P. Prince or the athleticism of a JaJuan Smith, Howell offsets these shortcomings with good positioning and all-out hustle.

"The thing that doesn't get noticed about Jordan is his defensive ability," Vol head coach Bruce Pearl said this week. "He is one of the quickest guys out there. He has really worked hard in the weight room, really worked hard with his conditioning."

Though routinely overshadowed by flashier teammates, Howell is quietly having a top-notch senior season. He provides a cool head and a steadying influence for a team that is 14-1 and ranked No. 6 nationally heading into tonight's 7 o'clock tipoff against No. 16 Vanderbilt (16-1) at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"I think Jordan is a senior playing with confidence," Pearl said. "I'm always happiest for my seniors because this is it. This is the year they're going to remember."

Howell knows the Southeastern Conference better than most. After growing up in Auburn, he signed with Georgia out of high school. When UGA head coach Jim Harrick was ousted following the 2002-03 season, Howell got a release from the Bulldogs and signed with Tennessee's Buzz Peterson.

A bout with Mononucleosis cost Howell the entire 2003-04 season and sapped his strength. Still feeling the effects of the disease, he shot just 24.1 percent from the floor and 25 percent from 3 as a redshirt freshman in 2004-05.

Regaining his strength, Howell blossomed under first-year Vol coach Pearl's guidance in 2005-06. The 6-3, 190-pounder hit 39.5 percent of his 3-point attempts that season, then followed up by hitting 34.6 percent of his treys and starting six games at the point in 2006-07.

This season, thanks to dramatic improvement on defense, he has started 12 of the Vols' first 15 games. He's sinking 44.4 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from 3 and 78.3 percent from the foul line. In addition, he's averaging 3.0 assists, 1.5 rebounds and just under one steal per game. Those numbers won't earn him any All-SEC recognition but they've earned him his coach's respect.

"Guys that can cover and shoot are very, very valuable," Pearl said. "A lot of shooters can't cover. That's been a real key. And he's a good enough playmaker to play point guard. He's smart enough to advance-pass the ball and get the ball in other guys' hands.

"His ability to shoot and his ability to defend make him very valuable."

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