Hoop Vols pumped

Tennessee basketball fans weren't satisfied that the Vols won the SEC East title last season. Tennessee basketball players can relate. They weren't satisfied, either.

The 2008-09 Vols finished 21-13 but could have been 27-7 if they'd claimed six close games they believe they should have won. These were an overtime loss to Gonzaga, a 54-52 loss to Memphis, a 78-77 loss at Auburn, a 70-67 loss to Alabama, a 64-61 loss to Mississippi State in the finals of the SEC Tournament and a 77-75 loss to Oklahoma State in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament.

"There were so many games we lost last year by one or two points," senior point guard Bobby Maze says. "We've got everybody back this year, and I think we'll have the experience to know how to handle those situations."

Sophomore Cameron Tatum agrees that the 2009-10 Vols, being a year older, will be much more efficient in late-game situations than they were a year ago.

"We have a lot of experience now," he said. "We know what we need to do, what we did wrong in those close games last year. We watched film from last year and said, 'What were we doing there? Why did we do that?' Now it looks foolish because we've gotten older.

"With the experience we have from last year coming back, I think we're going to be a lot better."

One player Tennessee didn't expect to be coming back is Tyler Smith. The 6-7 forward recently elected to return for his senior year rather than take his chances with the NBA Draft. He led the 2008-09 Vols in points (17.4 per game) and assists (114), while ranking second in rebounds (5.8 per game).

"Even though we had Tyler last year, I think him coming back this year will be a big help," sophomore Scotty Hopson said. "He's a team leader. At the end of last year he got us to the SEC championship and the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully, we can get farther this year."

Smith should have more help this season. Hopson scored 49 and 44 points in his first two Rocky Top summer league games and appears to have taken his confidence – and his game – to another level.

As Hopson put it: "With Tyler providing leadership, and me helping with leadership and talking up the things I know, that's really going to get us far this year."

Senior wing Josh Tabb also believes the Vols can go a long way in 2009-10 ... if they tighten up their defense a bit.

"The key for us is just getting tougher," he said. "We've got to work on defense. Everybody's got to be able to move their feet from 1 through 5, position-wise. It's just about getting tougher – doing a better job on the weights and showing up for workouts early."

Although the competition in the Rocky Top League is a notch below what the Vols will be facing in SEC play, Tabb believes he and his teammates are benefiting from their summer-league fling.

"It can help us all out," he said. "We're going into the season really confident after playing ball over the summer. This league is for guys to come out here and get better at things they need to work on."

Tabb also is encouraged by incoming freshmen Kenny Hall and Skylar McBee, based on the pickup games the Vols play at the Pratt Pavilion practice facility.

"I don't have any of the younger guys on my (summer-league) team," he said, "but playing with and against them every day in open gym I think we learn each other's chemistry."

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