Hardwood hustler

Head coach Bruce Pearl is trying hard to reduce Tennessee's playing rotation but one player is trying even harder to stop him. So far, the player is winning.

Emmanuel Negedu is trying so hard, in fact, that he is (A) becoming a fan favorite and (B) prompting his teammates to play with more effort.

Negedu, a native of Nigeria who didn't play organized basketball until he was 15 years old, offsets his lack of polish with an abundance of energy. In Monday night's 89-62 defeat of Louisiana, for instance, he contributed 5 points, 3 rebounds, a block and 2 steals in eight action-packed minutes.

"That's my game," he said. "If I don't go all out, I look stupid out there, so I have to go all out. I go hard when I play. That's just my game. If I don't, I look stupid."

Negedu does not want to look stupid. Nor does Pearl, who has expanded his playing rotation from nine to 10 in order to give the muscular freshman a few minutes of action each game behind veteran inside players Wayne Chism, Tyler Smith and Brian Williams.

"You could go with a three-man rotation of Wayne, Tyler and most likely Brian," Pearl conceded. "But Emmanuel Negedu and Brian are right there (in terms of productivity). Emmanuel is playing right at 10 minutes a game, and I like the 10 minutes he's giving us."

Although somewhat dwarfed by the 6-10, 270-pound Williams, the 6-7, 230-pound Negedu is pushing him for playing time in the post because of his hustle and aggressiveness.

"I like the energy Emmanuel brings," Pearl said. "Brian would probably like more minutes but I let guys play their way in and out of roles. If Brian, Tyler and Wayne would all play great that could squeeze Emmanuel out. But I don't know that all three are playing great. Therefor, I want Emmanuel to get those 10 minutes."

Negedu's best outing came against Georgetown. With Chism and Williams limited by foul troubles, the chiseled rookie played 20 outstanding minutes. He contributed a season-best 5 points, 6 rebounds, a block and a steal. His all-out hustle even neutralized 6-11 Hoya superstar Greg Monroe.

"It beat Georgetown," Pearl said, noting that Tennessee outscored the Hoyas by 27 points while Negedu was on the floor. "If he's not ready and his attitude's not right, we don't beat Georgetown."

Since that 20-minute outing vs. Georgetown, however, Negedu has played double-figure minutes just once – a 13-minute stint vs. UNC Asheville on Dec. 3. Since he had a celebrated prep career at Brewster (New Hampshire) Academy, it's understandable that he'd like to see more action.

"Coming down here I didn't think it was going to be this way. But it's this way right now, so I accept it," he said. "I just stay ready and focused and ready to go.

"The team needs me, so the minutes I play out there are all for the team. I just go out there and play hard. I don't complain about my minutes. I know there's other guys out there ahead of me. I'm just a freshman and I know my time's going to come."

Still, the adjustment from high school superstar to college reserve is not an easy one.

"It's hard," he conceded. "In high school you started every game and you were the No. 1 player on your school team. I was a very good player; I did everything. Then I come here and sit on the bench.

"But when I first came to the United States I was in the same situation as a freshman in high school. As a sophomore I played a little bit more. It is the same way here it was in high school: I worked my way to the top. I know that if I keep playing hard my time is going to come."

Because his action is limited to short spurts, Negedu can give 100 percent without worrying about pacing himself. He says he works just as hard, however, whether he's going to play 10 minutes or 35.

"There's nothing to leave out there (on the floor)," he said. "That's how I play. If I don't play hard, I look stupid, so I play hard. I play really hard and when I know I'm tired I'll tell Coach, 'Take me out. I'm tired.' I come out, get my wind back, then I go back again.

"When you're out there tired and you don't want to go out you're killing the team. You're not doing anything productive and you look stupid."

Clearly, Emmanuel Negedu does not wish to look stupid.

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