Crunch-time heroes

The Tennessee Basketball Vols are kind of like a distance runner: They pace themselves, then win with a big finishing kick.

At least, that appears to be the case to some observers ... including Bruce Pearl.

"I would agree," Tennessee's head coach said this week. "We haven't committed to 40 minutes of intense play. I don't think we were exhausted in the locker room after the game (against ETSU on Wednesday night). I do think we're holding back some and have more to give."

The Vols do appear to be "holding back" lately. They led College of Charleston just 61-58 before closing the game with a 25-11 spurt to win 86-69. They led ETSU just 61-55 before making a 17-11 finishing kick to prevail 78-66.

Naturally, seeing his team give just enough effort to win is not satisfactory for Tennessee's head coach.

As Pearl put it: "I told my seniors: 'It's not my job to coach effort. That's got to come from my seniors.' In Tyler (Smith), Bobby (Maze), Wayne (Chism) and J.P. (Prince) we've got great leaders. I've asked them to help me a little more."

The fact the Vols are 6-1 and ranked 11th nationally without playing their hardest - or anywhere near their best - probably says a lot about just how good they are. Even pacing themselves, they appear to be well ahead of last year's team at the same stage.

"I think so. Experience helps anything," Maze said, adding that a year ago "we had a lot of new guys coming in, and it took a little time for the chemistry to come around. Now I've spent a year with this team and we only have two freshman, Kenny Hall and Skylar McBee. Those guys are willing to work hard and understand their roles, so I think this team is a little ahead of last year at this time."

Identifying and understanding roles is a bigger deal than most fans probably realize. When each player recognizes his role and fills it competently, Tennessee thrives. This was the case in 2007-08, when the Vols went 31-5. When some players don't identify or accept their roles, the team struggles. This was the case in 2008-09, when the Vols went 21-13.

From all accounts, the 2009-10 Vols are ahead of the curve in terms of recognizing their roles.

"A lot of guys are realizing what they're going to do, what spots they're going to be in," Smith said. "I feel like that's going to be a big plus for us, as far as knowing what spots they're going to be in and what shots they're going to get, stuff like that."

McBee is a prime example. The freshman guard understands that his role is to provide energy on defense and a 3-point threat on offense in his 15-minute-per-game relief stints. He did both Wednesday night vs. ETSU, hitting 3 of 3 shots from beyond the arc and providing all-out hustle on the other end of the court.

"Going into the season you really don't know what your role is going to be," he said. "As you go along you kind of fit into that, and I think like we're meshing really well."

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