Classy gesture

He had made just 4 of his previous 26 field-goal attempts. He had scored a mere 12 points in the previous nine games combined. He had not started a Tennessee basketball game since Jan. 22 and played just five mop-up minutes a few days earlier against Kentucky.

Given all of the above, senior guard Jordan Howell was understandably surprised last week when he learned he would be starting his final home game Sunday against South Carolina. Making the news all the more surprising was the fact it came from the guy who normally starts ahead of him, Ramar Smith.

"Ramar came up to me one day in practice and said, 'Hey, get in there (with the first team). You're starting on Sunday,'" Howell recalled. "I said OK."

Even with Smith's assurance, Howell wasn't totally convinced he'd be starting his final appearance before the home fans until he showed up at Thompson-Boling Arena a few hours before the 2 p.m. tipoff.

"I walked in this morning and saw my name on the board in the starting lineup," he said following UT's 89-56 blowout of the Gamecocks. "I was excited to be able to run out there my last time in the starting lineup."

Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl is an intensely competitive guy who is driven to succeed. That's why the Vols are 28-3, SEC regular-season champs and ranked No. 4 nationally. Sometimes, though, he alters his hard-line stance toward the game and shows a soft spot for the people who play it. Starting Jordan Howell Sunday afternoon was just such a soft-hearted gesture.

Was Howell surprised?

"Not at all," he said. "Coach knows how important Tennessee basketball is to me. He's a good man, and I kinda' had a feeling he was going to."

Howell originally signed with the Vols in 2003 but a bout with mononucleosis caused him to miss the entire 2003-04 season. Making matters worse, he scarcely left the bench as a redshirt freshman in 2004-05. Relegated to mop-up duty on a team that went 14-17 and got head coach Buzz Peterson fired, Howell did not see a bright future for Tennessee hoops in general and himself in particular.

"After my first year I didn't know what the future of Tennessee basketball was," he conceded. "But I knew there was potential here because of the huge fan following across the nation. I knew there was potential. When Coach Pearl got here he tapped into that potential and it exploded."

After the 14-17 debacle of 2004-05, Howell never could have guessed Tennessee would be a likely No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament three years later. In fact, he thought the best-case scenario would be "an outside shot" at getting into the NCAA Tournament.

"My first year we weren't even good enough to make the NIT Tournament," he said. "And that team that couldn't even make the NIT Tournament lost two of our best players (Scooter McFadgon and Brandon Crump), and we didn't have anybody new coming in (for 2005-06).

"My expectation going into that season was that I didn't know what was going to happen. We wound up getting a 2 seed, though, and it's all because Coach Pearl came in and changed everything."

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