Locating leadership

Tennessee basketball fans spent three frustrating months waiting for an assortment of talented players to blend into a team. Perhaps their patience has been rewarded.

An 81-76 defeat of Mississippi State and a 79-75 win at Florida during the past week gave indications that the Vols finally are on the same page. Even head coach Bruce Pearl is encouraged.

"I give the team credit from the standpoint they've come together," he said, noting that a 77-58 loss Feb. 21 at Kentucky "spoke volumes for how we weren't playing team basketball. But they played team basketball this (past) week."

Squads that play as one tend to register more assists and fewer turnovers than squads that feature a bunch of freelancing players. Pearl believes the Vols are beginning to play as one.

"The six turnovers at Florida tied for the low turnovers since I've been here," he said. "We're taking care of the basketball. Bobby (Maze), J.P. (Prince) and Tyler (Smith) all rank in the top seven of the SEC in assist/turnover ratio. Josh (Tabb) would, too, except he doesn't qualify for the rankings. That speaks highly of how the team is trying to play together."

With only one scholarship senior on the Vol roster – little-used reserve Ryan Childress – leadership was a concern heading into this season. That concern was legitimate. Proving the old adage "better late than never," Tennessee's leadership finally appears to be emerging, however.

"We've gotten the best leadership this week we have all season long," Pearl said. "This week has been when the leadership has finally kicked in. We play best when everybody contributes, and Tyler would be the guy I give the most credit for putting it together.

"It has to come from within if it's going to be something the kids really buy in to. I believe it took the setback in Lexington to bring that leadership on. Tyler has responded, and the guys have responded to it, and we're playing like a team."

Coming off the humiliating loss at Lexington, Tennessee was 16-10 overall, 7-5 in SEC play and sinking fast. Just when the outlook was bleakest, however, junior starters Smith, Prince and Wayne Chism came to the rescue with some timely leadership.

"I'm proud of the team for being able to kick it in, understanding that it was required in order for us to put ourselves in position where we're still competing for a championship," Pearl said. "I can promise you that it doesn't kick in every year on every team. The fact it has kicked in is gratifying.

"Yeah, we would like to have had it heading to Auburn or heading to Ole Miss. That would've been nice, but that's what seasons are made of."

Although most of the newfound leadership has come from Smith, Prince and Chism, Pearl also notes key contributions from sophomore Brian Williams and junior reserve Josh Tabb.

"You can put Brian Williams and Josh Tabb in that mix," the head man said. "Brian Williams has really stepped it up and been a real factor. Brian has been very consistent. I told Brian a couple of days ago that, no matter how things turn out, I'm proud of him for battling back.

"I see leadership from Brian, from Josh, from Cameron (Tatum), from Scotty (Hopson). There's other guys taking it on besides Wayne, J.P. and Tyler."

Tennessee will need all of the above playing together Thursday night in Columbia. The Vols and South Carolina, both 9-5 in SEC play, collide with the Eastern Division lead on the line. Given the stakes and the location, UT's leadership will be tested.

"Yeah," Pearl said, "it's got to be there this week."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories