Hopson for the defense

With a 6-7 frame, long arms, quick feet and exceptional leaping ability, Scotty Hopson always possessed all of the tools to be a superior defensive player. Except the focus.

Now that he's got that, Tennessee's lanky sophomore is a lot closer to being the All-America player he was projected to be when he signed with the Vols following a standout prep career in Hopkinsville, Ky.

Like most high schoolers, Hopson was all about offense as a teenager. He averaged 24.3 points per game as a senior at University Heights High School, mixing deadly 3-pointers with dazzling drives.

Two years into his college career, however, Hopson is showing he can perform at the other end of the floor, too. Consider his last two outings Exhibits A and B. He limited Arkansas's Rotnei Clark (who leads the SEC in 3-pointers and 3-point percentage) to 2-of-8 shooting from beyond the arc, then held Mississippi State's Barry Stewart to 1-of-5.

"Rotnei Clarke was an assignment, Barry Stewart was an assignment," UT head coach Bruce Pearl said. "Scotty is now playing defense with a purpose and, quietly, his guys don't score."

Reminded of the compliment from his coach, Hopson said it was music to his ears.

"It was great. It let me know how far I've come as a player and what he thinks of me," he said. "I still am not satisfied. I've got a lot more to go, as far as my game is concerned, and I'm going to keep pushing to get better and better every day."

Although quick feet help on defense, a quick mind may be just as beneficial. Hopson has discovered as much this season.

"One of the things I talked to Scotty about is Eric Berry," Pearl said, referring to the All-America safety for Tennessee's 2009 football team. "Eric Berry puts himself in position to make plays on the field, whether it's before the snap because of his anticipation or as soon as things are happening (because) he's one step ahead.

"Scotty was not one step ahead defensively. He'd react to what was going on - be long enough and athletic enough to cover it - but he wasn't making plays because he wasn't anticipating and wasn't focused."

Now Hopson is anticipating AND focused. The result is a player capable of winning a game with his defensive abilities. Oddly enough, this newfound knack for anticipating plays before they unfold is helping him on offense, as well as defense.

"The same thing was true with getting open," Pearl said. The same thing was true with understanding and dealing with how (opponents) cover a ball screen. He's able to read the defense and react accordingly. He's thinking ahead.

"I think his being more alert and more ready to make plays is helping him get open on cuts. He was never able to get open on cuts before but he's cutting with a purpose. Now he's coming off down-screens looking for things. Before, he was coming off down-screens just because he was supposed to. Now he's looking to make something happen."

One thing Hopson is "looking to make happen" is putting a halt to Pearl chewing him out during game-film reviews.

"In the past he's singled me out and yelled out me for doing something wrong," Hopson noted, "but I think it made me grow as a player. A lot of times in film now he's pointing out good things from me, and guys are learning from that. It's good to know he has confidence in you."

Hopson's best game of the year may have been the one he opened on the bench. Relegated to a relief role Feb. 23 against Florida, he responded by hitting 8 of 15 shots (4 of 8 from 3) and scoring 20 points - his most productive outing since November.

"I guess it set a fire under me," he said. "Coach took me aside and had that time with me, let me know I wasn't doing the things I needed to do for us to be successful."

With the season entering tourney time, Hopson needs to hit his peak immediately. He understands this.

"I feel like the time is now," he said. "This is the time for me to step up for this team and play well, and I've been trying to do the best I can with that."

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