Vol-Arkansas prediction

Tennessee's basketball team played 17 games in 2001-02 that were decided by seven points or less, going 7-10 in them.

Heading into Wednesday night's game at Arkansas (8 p.m. tipoff at Fayetteville), the Vols already have played 11 games in 2002-03 that were decided by seven points or less, going 7-4. That's a significant improvement in close-game efficiency, and head coach Buzz Peterson believes the progress is easily explained.

''Coaches can talk about what we need to do but, when it gets down to the wire, the players make plays,'' Peterson said this week. ''That's why I'm glad we've got (Ron) Slay and (Jon) Higgins and (Thaydeus) Holden -- those seniors who are stepping up and making plays for our ballclub.''

The senior trio certainly stepped up in last Saturday's 78-72 defeat of No. 17 Georgia. Slay scored 33 points. Holden added 15, hitting 6 of 6 from the free throw line in the final 33 seconds. Higgins scored just 3 points but grabbed 6 rebounds and handed out 6 assists while playing 38 turnover-free minutes, splitting time between off guard and point guard.

Higgins' effort underscores a key point: There's more to winning close games than hitting big shots in the clutch. A lot of contributions can be easily overlooked by the average fan.

''It's doing the little things -- offensive rebound, a box-out, a loose ball, drawing a charge, setting a good screen,'' Peterson said.

The king of screens is Slay, Tennessee's 6-8, 240-pound senior forward.

''I don't think I've ever had an individual screen as well as he is,'' Peterson said. ''He's doing a great job behind the scenes, setting those screens and helping our ballclub out.''

Tennessee carries a 13-6 overall mark and a 5-3 SEC record against Arkansas (7-12, 2-6). In addition, the Vols are riding a four-game winning streak. The Big Orange will be looking for its third league road win of the season -- having already won at Ole Miss (66-64) and at Auburn (60-57). Both of those teams are considerably better than Arkansas.

On the negative side, the Vols have never won at Bud Walton Arena, standing 0-4. They did, however, upset Arkansas 101-93 at Fayetteville in 1993.

If Tennessee's senior trio plays as well as it has the past few weeks, you've got to like the Vols' chances.

My pick: Tennessee 64, Arkansas 57.


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