Slay fouls less, plays more

There are two sure-fire ways a basketball player can avoid foul trouble: (A) Playing SMART defense and (B) playing NO defense.

The question is: Which tag applies to Tennessee's Ron Slay?

Since fouling out of a Jan. 25 loss to Louisville, being limited to 20 minutes in a Jan. 29 game with South Carolina and committing four personals Feb. 1 at Auburn, Slay has been reasonably foul-free in the Vols' last five games.

So, is the senior forward playing smart defense or no defense?

''I HOPE he's playing defense and not relaxing,'' Vol head man Buzz Peterson quipped this week.

In truth, Slay has created a third option for foul-free play ... (C) Playing smarter defense but holding back a bit.

Simply put, he is so valuable that the Big Orange cannot afford to have him saddled with foul trouble during key stretches of games. As a result, the Vol staff has told Slay to concede some shots and some drives rather than risk fouling.

''Yes, there are some things we have to look at,'' Peterson said. ''We need him in there down the stretch -- offense for one thing, but also his leadership.''

Slay has been ''in there down the stretch'' in each of Tennessee's last five outings: He committed just two fouls vs. UMass and Florida and one against Georgia. He had four against Arkansas and four (one a technical) against South Carolina in Wednesday night's rematch but played 38 and 36 minutes, respectively.

''He's being a smarter defender,'' Peterson said.

Slay needs to be a little smarter on offense, as well. In his quest for points, he sometimes gets out of control. He's at his best when he's attacking the basket aggressively but selectively.

''A lot of Ron's fouls don't come from the defensive end,'' Peterson noted. ''A lot of them come on offense -- posting up or trying to be Magic (Johnson) on the break or whatever.''

Still, most of Slay's earlier foul troubles stemmed from reach-ins and hacks. He has improved in this regard lately.

''He's a good defender, when he puts his mind to it,'' Peterson said. ''The last four weeks his defense has been much better than it was at the beginning of the year. He's taken more pride in playing better defense the last four weeks, knowing that will help this ballclub win more games.''

That's a fact. Slay's improved defensive play has helped Tennessee win six of its last seven games heading into Saturday afternoon's game with Alabama (2 p.m. tipoff at Thompson-Boling Arena).

Even when Slay has had to come out of a game due to fouls this season, he is managing to help the Vols with his demeanor on the bench. A prime example was the Ole Miss game, when Slay picked up three quick fouls and had to take a seat.

''The (third) foul bothered him and he was upset for about 15 seconds,'' Peterson recalled. ''Then all of a sudden he forgot about it. He let it go, and he started helping his teammates on the floor. In the past, if Ron had gotten that foul, he would've been on the bench sulking and probably telling the official about it.

''Instead, he let that foul go and helped his teammates win that ballgame. That's where he's changed tremendously.''

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