Vols Deserve Better Fate, Greater Support

Tennessee continues to lose close games to powerful opponents and they continue to gain converts along the way, especially Big Orange fans that long for a Volunteer basketball team that plays consistently well with outstanding effort.

A total of 17,084 fans that witnessed the Vols battle No. 14 Louisville to the wire Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena, no doubt, were disappointed by the 72-69 outcome, but heartened by another strong performance registered by an improving Tennessee team that appears to be on the verge of a major breakthrough.

No, it isn't a team that has all the pieces in place. It's lack of an athletic wing capable of scoring from the perimeter, hitting the boards and playing solid defense is glaring. The team needs more experience coming off the bench and a swing guard capable of subbing at the point while providing another ball handler against the press.

Help is on the way.

Memphis transfer Scooter McFagdon, who is sitting out this season, should step right into the three-spot and start producing from day one next fall. Memphis prep guard Dane Bradshaw is capable of excelling at the lead or the two-guard roles and will give Coach Buzz Peterson depth and diversity in the back court.

This edition of the Volunteers can't match the overall talent level of its predecessors under Jerry Green, but it does have components that fit together better than any of those NCAA qualifiers. Moreover, it doesn't have the maddening lapses of consistency or the unfocused efforts that characterized Green's underachieving squads.

Furthermore, despite being much less experienced, it plays a smarter, less selfish brand of basketball than Green's teams. Peterson has stepped in and successfully blended the old with the new, forming a group that puts team goals before individual accomplishments.

Perhaps the most noticeable improvement from that of the Green Era are found in the progress the players have shown in just two seasons under Peterson. In fact, there's not a single player that was on the squad last year that doesn't appear improved this year. In the case of Thaydeus Holden, Elgrace Wilborn, Derek Stribling and Brandon Crump that improvement is remarkable. Even a premier player like Ron Slay has demonstrated greater discipline and a better rounded game than ever before.

Compare that to the lack of progress exhibited by players under Green. Some showed no improvement over four years in the program while Tony Harris, Charles Hathaway and Isiah Victor appeared to regress — actually playing worse as seniors than they did as freshmen.

It makes you wonder what this UT team might have achieved with the return of Marcus Haislip at power forward. Certainly there are at least four defeats — West Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia and Louisville— that having Haislip would have probably reversed the result, making Tennessee, at 13-2, a top 20 caliber team.

Against Louisville, which entered today's contest on a nine-game winning streak, holding all those vanquished opponents to under 40 percent from the field, failed to keep that streak intact verses the Volunteers who shot 43.1 percent in the game, including 50 percent in the first half. Tennessee also out rebounded Louisville 40 to 29 while limiting the Cards long-range shooting game to 6-of-27 from beyond the arc for 22.2 percent.

Playing 39 minutes against RIck Pitino's relentless pressure defense, C.J. Watson made only two turnovers against four assists. Overall, Tennessee committed a commendable 18 turnovers against 15 assists. Additionally, the Vols hit 21-of-25 free throws with Watson being the only UT player to miss a foul shot. He connected on 6-of-10, a percent which will improve with experience.

How much better can this Tennessee team get with the personnel on hand?

The answer is: Significantly better as the freshmen gain confidence and a better understanding of their roles within the team concept. Both John Winchester and Stanley Asumnu have the talent to fortify this squad for a strong stretch run, and as each shows progress so should Tennessee.

Given the strength and balance in the SEC, it seems unlikely this team will be able to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. However this team can finish strong and build a foundation for future success.

These Volunteers deserve the heartfelt support of Tennessee fans everywhere. In time, they will demand it.

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