Point guards underachieving

From scoring to playing defense to setting up the offense, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl isn't happy with his point guard play.

And he knows it's got to get better for Tennessee to make a run at tournament time.

Ramar Smith isn't finishing and Jordan Howell isn't hitting from outside.

``I think they're both better than they're playing,'' said Pearl, whose team takes a 25-3 record, 11-2 in SEC, into Sunday's high noon shootout against Kentucky in Knoxville. ``The guys have to do a better job of leading the team.

``Defensively, they're playing OK (but) they could help create more turnovers.''

Offense is the bigger problem. Smith has made over 50 percent of his shots in just two of his last nine games and he's hit just 58.9 percent of his free throws in the last 10 games.

``Ramar has got to finish at the rim,'' Pearl said. ``That's what he does well. He's not a tremendous playmaker for others, although he's fine. But he can get to the rim and he can score. And he can get to the foul line. Right now, he's getting there and not finishing, and he hasn't finished with any consistency the last three or four weeks.''

Howell has lost his shot. In the last seven games, Howell is 2-of-22 overall, 2-of-19 from 3-point range. And he's got just nine assists to seven turnovers.

``That's just not enough productivity for 16 minutes (per game),'' Pearl said. ``You've got to do more. So, we've encouraged him to try to do more.''

Despite that lack of production, Tennessee is off to its best start in school history. Not even Pearl imagined leaping to No. 1 in the polls.

``If you'd told me we'd be 25-3 after 28 games, I'd have said, `Where do you want me to sign?''' Pearl said.

But that doesn't mean UT has peaked. Far from it. Not only can UT get better at point guard, it can improve its offense. Pearl criticized his team for not screening hard, not cutting hard and not spacing well after shooting 32.8 percent from the field against Vanderbilt.

Some of that is because the team is expending more energy on defense and rebounding.

``When did you think there'd be a time when somebody as good as Kevin Stallings (Vanderbilt's coach) would say Tennessee is the best defensive team in the league,'' Pearl said. ``We put forth a great deal of effort on that end of the floor. We're getting guys to be tremendously accountable and improving their rebounding. (UT has outrebounded 10 consecutive opponents).

``All of that is very much effort related. You're going to rest some place. I think this year we've rested on offense. We're not running the fast break as hard. We're not advance passing the ball. … We're not trying to outscore people. … The identity of this team has changed some from my first two years.''

Recently, Pearl said the Vols hadn't earned the right to be called a team that finds a way to win. He felt the Vols did find a way to win against Memphis.

What's the distinction?

Finding a way to win means you're making plays down the stretch as opposed to making mistakes to keep the other team in the game. He cited close wins against Ohio State, LSU and Georgia as examples.

``We assisted the opponent either by missing free throws or (making) turnovers or taking bad shots,'' Pearl said. ``Our defense is good. We're hard to score on. Don't make them (opponent) better by fouling them.

``When you do things like that, you're not finding ways to win. The opponent just isn't taking advantage of the ways you've given them.''


Pearl is pleased with the recent improvement of J.P. Prince, not just at the foul line but with his all-around game.

``He can make positive plays,'' Pearl said. ``He's a very productive player. He can pass it. He can get himself to the foul line. He can rebound his position. When he wants to guard, he can. He uses that length. I'll get him on the floor more often.''

The knock on Prince coming in was that he didn't always play hard. That won't work in Pearl's system.

``When they don't play hard, you've got to expose them and you can't tolerate it,'' Pearl said. ``We also play a system and a style that if you don't play hard, you'll get exposed.

``When I do get after them and raise my voice and carry on, it's along the lines of a lack of effort – a sprint, a close out, a check out, a loose ball. It's rarely ever for a mistake.''


ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb said Chris Lofton takes too many bad shots, that UT's bench is overrated and that Brian Williams and Howell aren't suited to play at this level.

Pearl didn't sound upset with the criticism.

``I've got no problem with the opinion,'' Pearl said.

Pearl said Gottlieb was looking at UT as the No. 1 team in the country.

``Does North Carolina have better personnel at a particular position here or there? Perhaps. As it relates to Duke or UCLA and so on and so forth, that is where I think he draws the distinction and makes the comparisons.''

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