Point to ponder

The casual fan believes Tennessee was two wins from reaching the NCAA Final Four this year. The hardcore fan knows the Vols were only a point guard away.

That void may have been filled yesterday, when the Big Orange got the signature of Junior College All-American Bobby Maze. The addition of Maze, along with high school signee Daniel West, could give the Vols two quality point guards for 2008-09 ... which would be two more than they had in 2007-08.

A point guard is like a quarterback in football. You can win without a great one but you'd better have a competent one. A review of Tennessee's five 2007-08 losses underscores that the point-guard play simply wasn't competent in those outings.


- In Tennessee's 97-78 Game 6 loss to Texas, starter Jordan Howell and backup Ramar Smith produced 1 assist and 2 turnovers each. Two assists and four turnovers from the point position in 40 minutes of basketball will get you beat most nights, as was the case this time.

- In Tennessee's 72-66 Game 18 loss at Kentucky, Howell struggled mightily – going 0 for 3 from the field with 0 assists and 0 turnovers in 15 nondescript minutes. Smith came off the bench to score 10 points but had more turnovers (3) than assists (2) in his 25-minute relief stint.

- In Tennessee's 72-69 Game 28 loss at Vanderbilt, Smith and Howell combined for 8 points, 3 assists and 2 turnovers (all by Smith). While the duo did very little to lose the game, they did very little to win it, either.

- In Tennessee's 92-91 Game 33 loss to Arkansas in the SEC Tournament, Smith recorded 7 points, 4 assists and 3 turnovers but sank just 5 of 9 free-throw tries. He missed two crucial foul shots and a potential game-changing layup in the final 4 minutes. Howell – mired in a shooting slump so severe that opponents had stopped guarding him – was 0 of 4 from the field, finishing with 1 assist and 1 turnover.

- Finally, in Tennessee's season-ending 79-60 loss to Louisville in the NCAA Sweet 16, stop-gap measure J.P. Prince started at the point but played just 12 minutes before giving way to Smith, who went 2 of 9 from the floor with 3 assists and 3 turnovers in 28 minutes. Despite playing more small forward than point in the game, Prince finished 1 of 3 from the floor with twice as many turnovers (4) as assists (2).

The obvious question: Why didn't head coach Bruce Pearl go out and sign a quality point guard prospect prior to the 2007-08 season? The equally obvious answer: He thought he already had one. Heck, we all did.

Ramar Smith's performance as a true freshman in 2006-07 suggested he was going to be much more than competent ... he was going to be exceptional. A shooting guard in high school, he struggled at first with the transition to the point. Once he hit his stride, however, Ramar held his own against the two finest point guards in college hoops.

First, he outplayed Texas superstar D.J. Augustin in Game 12 – producing 16 points, 9 assists and 0 turnovers in 38 mind-boggling minutes while guiding the Vols to an overtime victory. Smith was nearly as brilliant in his NCAA Tournament matchup with Ohio State standout Mike Conley – contributing 15 points, 4 assists and 0 turnovers in an 85-84 Sweet 16 loss.

Based on Ramar Smith's imposing play in 2006-07, the Vols appeared to have their point guard locked up for the next three years. No high school prospects were willing to get in line behind him, so the Vols did not sign a point guard for '07-08.

Unfortunately for Tennessee, Smith's performance – on the court and off – slipped noticeably in 2007-08, resulting in his recent departure from the Vol program. So, with Howell out of eligibility and Prince seemingly a better fit for small forward, Bobby Maze and Daniel West will get every opportunity to win the point-guard position in the season ahead.

Will they provide better play than the Vols got from the position in 2007-08? Probably. They surely can't do much worse.

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