Points to ponder

Point-guard play becomes downright vital this time of year, especially with Tennessee chasing an SEC championship and a No. 1 seeding for the NCAA Tournament.

Basically, the play of Vol point guards Ramar Smith and Jordan Howell has been adequate lately. With tremendous talent around them, adequate may be good enough at the point. Still, head coach Bruce Pearl isn't satisfied as the second-ranked Vols (23-2 overall, 10-1 SEC) prepare for tonight's 7:30 tipoff against visiting Auburn.

"I think our point-guard play can improve," Pearl said. "Watching Ramar Smith last year at Auburn really take the ball to the basket and score ... he needs to do that better. And he made a couple of 3s in that game. He hasn't even shot a 3 in a while (this season), and he needs to."

After firing up 58 shots from 3-point range as a freshman last year, Smith has tried just 18 this season – making four (22.2 percent). He has attempted just one 3 in the last seven games, none in the last four outings. He has not made a 3-pointer since going 2 of 3 against Gonzaga way back on Dec. 29.

Conversely, Howell has attempted 27 treys during Tennessee's seven-game winning streak. He has made just 7 of these, however, for a mere 25.9 percent success rate. He has atoned for his shooting woes somewhat by providing feisty defensive work.

"There are times when Jordan is one of our best on-the-ball defenders and one of the more underrated defenders," Pearl noted. "And yet, against Georgia, there were times when guys turned the corner on him that they shouldn't have."

Because the Vols have two high-profile shooters at the wing positions – Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith – Howell finds himself open on a regular basis. When he's knocking down 3s, Tennessee is very difficult to guard.

"He made one big shot against Georgia," Pearl said of Howell, "and I think he probably could've put himself in position to make two or three."

Smith and Howell recorded just 3 assists each last Saturday vs. Georgia, yet Tennessee posted 20 assists as a team. Forward Tyler Smith led with 6 assists and J.P. Prince added 4 in an impressive 22-minute relief stint.

All told, Tennessee's 30 baskets came off 20 assists. That means a lot of guys were making a lot of good passes.

Pearl said there's usually a correlation between assists and baskets in Tennessee's offense. A bunch of baskets normally means players were making a lot of unselfish passes. That was especially true vs. Georgia.

"When you're playing against zone, usually that's going to be the case," Pearl said. "There's not as many one-on-one plays against zone as there would be against man-to-man. I thought our passing and our spacing was pretty good. I thought our purpose was OK."

After some early struggles, Tennessee has outrebounded its last seven opponents in succession. The Vols have tremendous scoring potential from the perimeter and a deep bench. Thus, the key to their hopes of winning an SEC title and earning a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament is obvious.

As Pearl put it: "We can get better play from the point-guard position."


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