Half-decent not good enough

He scored Tennessee's first 14 points against Gonzaga last January 7 and matched his career high of 19 points by intermission.

Cameron Tatum would rather not talk about that game, even though it was by far his best outing as a Vol.

"Yeah. But we lost, though," he said. "That's a half I remember but not the game."

Tatum scored just three second-half points that night, and Tennessee wound up losing in overtime. The game was pretty much a microcosm of the Big Orange season: The Vols routinely got in position to win, then failed to finish the job. That's why they lost to Oklahoma State in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament and closed the season with a mildly disappointing 21-13 record.

Now a seasoned sophomore, Tatum is convinced 2009-10 will be better than 2008-09 was.

"It's all about seasoning, guys taking the bumps and bruises," he said. "We had a semi-young team. We had a few young guys on the team, including myself, that hadn't learned what it takes to squeeze that win out by playing out two more possessions of hard defense."

Tatum was a redshirt freshman last season. Fellow wing guard Scotty Hopson was a true freshman and point guard Bobby Maze was a first-year junior college transfer. Their inexperience showed at times and cost the Vols several games last winter. Now that each has a season under his belt, the UT backcourt should operate considerably smoother.

"We know what to do now," Tatum said. "We know what it takes."

Most observers are all but conceding Kentucky the 2010 SEC championship because of the hiring of John Calipari and the signing of a heralded recruiting class. Tennessee isn't getting much love from the so-called experts. Tatum has noticed.

"We want to prove a lot of people wrong," he said. "We want to prove that last year was just a learning experience. We're coming back for a lot more ... trying to go further than Tennessee men's basketball has ever gone before."

The reference, of course, is to the fact the Vols have never advanced beyond the NCAA's Sweet 16. Whether Tennessee can clear that hurdle this season remains to be seen but Tatum is eager to find out.

"I'm very excited," he said. "I've been waiting for a long time - ever since we played Oklahoma State, then training real hard through the offseason and the summer. I can't wait. I'm ready to play right now."

He's ready physically, as well as mentally. Knee problems caused Tatum to redshirt in 2007-08 and limited his mobility in 2008-09. He believes his knees will hold up much better this season.

"They feel great," he said. "I came in during the summer and did extra work, learning to keep some of the pressure off of my knees. You learn to use your other muscles to keep your knees healthy. When I first got here I wasn't pushing myself in the weight room. Now that I'm pushing myself the other muscles you use start working more and take pressure off your knees."

Last season was a feast-or-famine deal for Tatum. He had some mediocre games but he had some - like the Gonzaga outing - in which he was downright awesome. There should be more of the latter this winter.

"I hope so," he said, "but that's not really what I'm looking forward to. Any way I can help the team is what I'm looking forward to. If God blesses me with one of those big games and it helps the team win, that's fine.

"But if I just play a role, pick my spots and be a glue guy, that's fine with me."

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