Guarded optimism

College basketball is a guard-driven game, and that is never more evident than during the postseason. The teams that make the Final Four, almost without exception, are the teams who get the best guard play.

That's why Kentucky (John Wall), Kansas (Sherron Collins), Duke (Jon Scheyer) and Syracuse (Andy Rautins) are likely No. 1 seeds for March Madness this year. Those teams have guards who can execute an offense, score when needed and provide on-the-ball defense.

Meanwhile, the teams who bow out quickly each March tend to be the teams with shaky guard play. Tennessee's guard play was erratic last March, which helps explain why the Vols were one and done in the NCAA Tournament.

Bobby Maze has matured tremendously in his second season as Tennessee's No. 1 point guard, however, and that bodes well for the Big Orange this postseason. He appears to be peaking as this week's SEC Tournament approaches. Since an 8-point, 0-assist, 2-turnover outing at Vanderbilt on Feb. 9, the 6-3 senior has hit double figures in six of the past seven games. During that stretch he shot 47.6 percent (30 of 63) from the floor and 40.0 percent (10 of 25) from 3, with 23 assists and 13 turnovers.

Additionally, backup Melvin Goins shown signs of hitting his stride after shedding the rust from a four-game disciplinary suspension in January. His last eight outings have seen him hit 40.9 percent (18 of 44) from the floor, 38.5 percent (5 of 13) from 3 and 73.3 percent (11 of 15) from the foul line. He scored 6.5 points per game during that stretch, despite averaging just 16.5 minutes. He also dished out 16 assists against 9 turnovers.

Maze and Goins are providing a lift on the other end of the court, as well.

"Defensively, Bobby and Melvin every single night are getting matched up against a great point guard," UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "There are great point guards in this league (yet) those guys have hung in there and some nights done better than that. That's a real key for our defense."

The coach believes backcourt play in general - not just point-guard play - is critical in March. That's why he is encouraged by the recent performances of wings Scotty Hopson, J.P. Prince and Cameron Tatum.

Hopson has averaged 13.1 points per game over the last seven outings, shooting 44.7 percent from the field. He also has improved defensively.

Prince has reached double figures in six of the last eight outings, averaging 13.0 points per game while shooting 53.6 percent (37 of 69) from the floor, 40.0 percent (6 of 15) from 3 and 70.6 percent (24 of 34) from the foul line.

Tatum has become a superior sixth man since recovering from a sprained ankle. His last four performances saw him average 11.5 points in just 17.2 minutes per outing. During that time he shot 51.8 percent (14 of 27) from the field, 35.7 percent (5 of 14) from 3 and 84.6 percent (11 of 13) from the foul line.

Given all of the above, Pearl figures any of his guards is capable of providing a game-winning play in March Madness.

"Our guard play is a lot better than it was a year ago," the coach said. "I can put the ball in Bobby's hands or in Melvin's hands, Scotty's hands, Cam's hands or J.P.'s hands and feel very comfortable about it. We have put the ball in their hands much more often this year than we did last year."

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