The Vols are 3-0 with a lineup of 6-10 Brian Williams, 6-9 Wayne Chism, 6-8 J.P. Prince, 6-7 Scotty Hopson and 6-3 Bobby Maze. Averaging nearly 6-8 per man, they represent the tallest personnel grouping the Big Orange has started all season. So far, they're the most successful grouping, too.
Williams may be the key. The towering junior has been a workhorse on the backboards since earning his first start on Feb. 23 at Florida, grabbing 32 rebounds - an average of 8 per game - despite playing just 24 minutes per contest.
The 270-pound Bronx brute was at his best in Saturday's 75-59 win at Mississippi State, hitting 5 of 7 shots, scoring 10 points, spearing 13 rebounds and blocking a shot in 27 quality minutes. He clearly outplayed celebrated Jarvis Varnado, who managed just 11 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks despite playing 10 more minutes.
When Chism picked up two quick fouls on Saturday, Williams basically assumed the task of battling the 6-9, 230-pound Varnado one on one.
"He's a slender body, and I had to put my body on him the rest of the game because they didn't have a backup center," Williams conceded on the post-game show. "He was going to play 35 minutes, so I had to wear him down on the offensive and defensive end."
Williams, of course, missed nine games in January and early February due to a disciplinary suspension. During his absence, 6-9 freshman Kenny Hall increased his minutes and elevated his play. Now that Williams has shed the rust from his layoff he's combining with Chism and Hall to give UT a strong three-man rotation on the inside.
"That's what we need," Williams said. "If one's not doing what he's supposed to do that night, we've got two other players that can pick him up. Wayne didn't play a real good game (1 point vs. Mississippi State) but I think me and Kenny (6 points, 4 rebounds in 12 minutes) took up the slack."
Starting the 6-10, 270-pound Williams AND the 6-9, 245-pound Chism would not be an option if the Vols still were utilizing the fast tempo they played in November. Tennessee has switched to a more deliberate tempo as the season has progressed, however, with Williams and Chism fitting quite well at the new pace.
"We're taking advantage of Wayne at the 4 and Brian at the 5 because we've got some more size," coach Bruce Pearl said. "J.P. is big at his position. Scotty's long at his position. All of a sudden, we are big and we are long."
Will the Vols continue to go big?
"As long as we are quick enough to be able to defend," Pearl said.
Although Hall is more athletic and more of an offensive threat, Williams is a better rebounder because of his heft and a better defender because of his experience. That was evident vs. Mississippi State.
"What Brian Williams did for us, as far as ball-screen coverage, was significant," Pearl said. "Brian knows how to hedge (provide defensive help) and knows how to get back (to guard his man). When Kenny was in there our ball-screen defense wasn't nearly as good because Kenny's not nearly as experienced."
With Hall inexperienced and Chism in foul trouble, Williams played a season-high 27 minutes Saturday. He responded with his first double-double of the season.
"It's very, very encouraging," Pearl said, "to see that happen."