Some were excited. Some were skeptical. Ultimately, all were pleased. Starting at off guard in his college debut, the 6-7 Hopson was "on" from the opening tip. He drained 7 of 11 shots – 3 of 6 from beyond the arc – and totaled 17 points in 19 minutes as the Vols hammered Chattanooga 114-75.
Hopson got off to a nice start, bombing home a 3-pointer from the left baseline to cap a 17-2 explosion that turned a 7-8 Vol deficit into a 24-10 lead. Hitting that first big shot was the beginning of a big night for Hopson and the beginning of the end for the visiting Moccasins.
"I thought I played well throughout the entire game," he said. "When I first got that 3-pointer, that got me going."
His teammates noticed.
"He got relaxed early," junior forward Wayne Chism noted. "He made his first few (shots) and I knew he was going to be having a good night."
Hopson is at his best in the open floor, since he is equally adept driving through traffic or pulling up and nailing the 3. He could be virtually unstoppable in head coach Bruce Pearl's fast-paced transition attack.
"The defense helped him out," Chism said. "Our rebounds and outlets allowed him to get open shots, too."
Like most high school superstars, Hopson didn't play a whole lot of defense prior to college. Saturday night, however, he recorded a steal and an emphatic shot block. He also deflected a pass or two.
"I try to use my defensive effort to get me going," he said. "I know that's a real key in my game."
Hopson contributed to a solid Vol defensive effort that forced 24 Chattanooga turnovers.
"Our press is so effective," he said, shaking his head in awe. "Once we get the effort flowing – getting steals and deflections – that's what is going to get us the wins. That's what we're looking for."
Essentially, what Pearl is looking for from Hopson is precisely what he got Saturday night.
"He was assertive," the coach said. "He was aggressive. He was having fun. He was finding his spots. I want the players to find their spots, find their roles – where they have opportunities to make plays offensively and defensively. I saw that. It looked like Tennessee basketball, and that's a good sign."
Another good sign is the way Vol teammates have accepted Hopson. Veteran players sometimes view a ballyhooed newcomer with cynicism, if not open resentment. The heralded Hopson seems to have no such problems, however.
"These guys are behind me 100 percent, whether I'm going well or not going well," he said. "My teammates pick me up through any downfalls I might have, and that's one thing I love about my teammates."
That isn't too surprising, though. Team chemistry was a strong suit of Pearl's first three Vol editions, and the 2008-09 group appears to be another close-knit collection.
"I think the chemistry is a big part of our team," Hopson said. "We haven't been together for a long time but we are jelling together as one. We've all got one goal – to win a championship – and we're going to toward that."