Are UT point guards good enough?

Georgia beat astronomical odds by winning four games – two in one day – en route to the SEC Tournament title last weekend. Great play from senior point guard Sundiata Gaines was instrumental.

While the feat was surprising, the key wasn't. Point-guard play tends to be crucial in March. That does not bode well for the Tennessee Vols heading into the NCAA Tournament this weekend. Their point-guard play has been spotty at best in recent weeks.

Since hitting 6 of 7 shots in a 19-point outing against Auburn on Feb. 20, starter Ramar Smith has contributed very little offensively. He has made just 29.7 percent of his shots (11 of 37) in the past seven games, missing his lone 3-pointer.

Smith scored just 33 points over that seven-game stretch, an average of 4.7 per outing. He averaged less than 4.0 assists per game during the span but at least maintained a good ratio of assists (27) to turnovers (17).

Smith is on a virtual offensive roll compared to senior backup Jordan Howell. Mired in the mother of all shooting slumps, Howell has made just 4 of his last 38 field-goal attempts (10.5 percent), including 3 of his last 31 tries from 3-point range (9.7 percent).

Since hitting 2 of 3 shots March 5 at Florida, Howell is 0-for-9 from beyond the arc and 0-for-12 overall. He is scoreless in his last three games and has just 12 points to show for his last 12 outings.

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl concedes that these numbers are not pretty. He also concedes that "Point-guard play IS critical" in March. Still, he is confident that the Vols' lead guards are capable of helping the team advance.

"Our point-guard play has not been great but it doesn't have to be great," the coach said. "It can be very good and we can still win. We've got some great players that are playing very well right now.

"We've been good at point guard. We haven't been great (but) it's been good enough to be 29-4."

The coach is not expecting Smith to suddenly start finishing all of his drives to the basket. Pearl isn't expecting Howell to suddenly start draining the 3-pointers that have been rattling out for the past two months. He isn't looking for UT's point-guard play to miraculously rise to a new level.

"It's not going to all of a sudden get great," he said. "I don't think it has to. It needs to be good, and we need to be great where we can be."

The Vols were great at shooting guard, power forward and small forward Saturday against Arkansas. Chris Lofton (7 of 12 from the field) produced 25 points, Tyler Smith (10 of 13) added 24 and JaJuan Smith (5 of 8) chipped in 18. Still, fourth-ranked Tennessee lost 92-91 to unranked Arkansas. Ramar Smith and Howell were a combined 1 of 6 from the floor and 5 of 9 from the foul line that day, producing a total of 7 points.

Do the Vols need more offense from their point guards?

"Sure," Pearl said. "We need Jordan to make open shots. We need Ramar to get to the rim…. We just need those guys to do what they do."

Only better.


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