Vols' volatile situation

Giving a senior's spot in the starting lineup to a sophomore can create a volatile situation. It helps if the two players are friendly. It helps even more if they're friends.

That's why the bond between senior J.P. Prince and sophomore Cameron Tatum has helped Tennessee's Basketball Vols achieve a 7-1 record and a top-10 ranking (No. 9 Associated Press, No. 8 ESPN/USA Today) heading into Tuesday night's 7 o'clock tipoff against Wyoming (5-4) at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"Me and J.P. are good friends, and we understand there's a bigger picture involved," said Tatum, who supplanted Prince in Games 6, 7 and 8. "It's a team matter, and we're all trying to get a national championship. He's a senior but he understands he wasn't performing as well. He knew he needed to go back to the drawing board a little bit and get things in order, and I think he's doing that right now."

Head coach Bruce Pearl isn't inclined to make lineup changes, particularly when they involve benching senior starters. When Prince was unproductive in the first five games of this season, however, Pearl grudgingly replaced him with Tatum.

The switch hasn't produced dynamic results on the court but, perhaps more importantly, it hasn't produced divisive results in the locker room. Prince has handled the demotion well. Tatum has handled the promotion equally well.

"You're concerned about how EVERY player responds to everything you do," Pearl said. "You're as concerned about a starter going to the bench as you are the guys on the bench not getting as many minutes as they'd like, and you worry about the guys that aren't playing yet."

In the end, Pearl simply felt Tatum had played his way into the lineup and Prince had played his way out of it.

"I worry about what I can control and about being fair," Pearl said. "Over a consistent period of time I had six guys that were worthy of a starting position, including Cameron Tatum. I think we gave J. P. the opportunity he deserved to stay in the rotations. Whether he starts or comes off the bench ... I don't believe that matters right now. As long as J.P. is playing well and contributing, I don't think it matters to him."

Oddly enough, both Tatum and Prince appear to play better coming off the bench. Tatum hit double figures in three of the games he did not start but has not reached double figures since joining the lineup. Prince averaged just 2.4 points per game in his five starts but came off the bench to score 17 points Friday night against Middle Tennessee. So, what's the big deal about coming off the bench?

"I guess the pluses for both me and J.P. are that we're both athletic and we both bring high energy," Tatum said. "It's good for us to back each other up because if one person is having a good game, that puts more pressure on the person coming off the bench to follow up that lead.

"Some people look at that as a bad thing but we look at it as a very good thing. We're very good friends. It's a bit of a competition between us but it's fun competition and it's good for us."

Because of their friendship, Tatum was thrilled to see Prince break out of his season-long doldrums vs. Middle Tennessee.

"That was huge for us," Tatum said. "It was good to see him answer back when a lot of people were kind of writing him off a little bit. Myself and the rest of the team knew he'd be back, so it was good to see him get his confidence back. Hopefully, he can continue that."

Even though Prince lost his starting job, he never lost the confidence of his head coach.

"I knew at some point he'd come around," Pearl said, adding that: "J.P. and I definitely have picked up the level of communication - recognizing that he had more to give and recognizing that it wasn't coming out. J.P. was probably more relaxed about it than I was, knowing it's going to come."

Seeing Prince break loose vs. Middle Tennessee last Friday night meant a lot to the Vols' head man.

"What I was excited about for J.P. is that he feels better about himself," Pearl said. "The team feels better that he played so well. They were happy for him. I think you'll see more of it (productivity). With a good performance his confidence will be up.

"And, obviously, we need him in order to be the best that we can be."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories