Expectations are high in Knoxville following Tennessee’s 2006-07 season that ended with a last-second loss to eventual national runner-up Ohio State in the South Region Semifinal in San Antonio, Texas. The loss, which came a short distance from the famed Alamo, whetted the Vols’ appetite in their quest to take the next step as a rising program.
“We’ve talked about “Remember the Alamo,” third-year head coach Bruce Pearl said. “We talked about the fact that we came so close to beating Ohio State twice and then having beaten Florida once and knowing that those teams played for the national championship a year ago. We feel like we are getting closer. With so many of those players returning from that experience, it definitely is an advantage. We gained a lot of confidence from getting as close as we got but have the hunger from not having advanced and being able to complete the job.”
Last year the Vols posted a 24-11 mark while playing what was ranked as the fourth-most difficult schedule in the nation. Only one team — national champion Florida — had a better Southeastern Conference record than Tennessee’s 10-6 record.
The Vols return a total of eight letterwinners, including four starters from the 2006-07 squad. Tennessee returns its top six scorers from that team and 11 of 12 statistical category leaders.
The only key player lost from the 2006-07 roster was Dane Bradshaw, an undersized power forward who averaged 5.5 points and 4.0 rebounds but led the team with 4.7 assists per game. What Bradshaw lacked in size and statistics, he more than made up for in leadership and play-making ability.
Leading the way for the Vols in 2007-08 will be the senior trio of Jordan Howell, Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith. Lofton is the reigning SEC Player of the Year and a 2007 second team All-America selection after leading the SEC with 20.8 points per game. Smith ranked ninth in the league with 15.2 points and was second in steals with 2.09 per game. Howell has provided a steadying influence on the squad, owning a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio while running UT’s uptempo offense.
Ryan Childress, who saw his play improve significantly last year, is the lone scholarship junior on the team. Sophomores Wayne Chism, a 6-foot-9 forward who started 18 games, Duke Crews, a 6-7 forward who drew 18 starts, Ramar Smith, a 6-2 guard that earned 28 starts, and Josh Tabb, a 6-4 guard who emerged as a defensive force, will each count on the experience gained during their rookie seasons at Tennessee.
Meanwhile, the Vols have added a pair of freshmen and two transfers to the lineup. Freshmen Cameron Tatum, a 6-foot-6 guard/forward, and Brian Williams, a 6-10 center, will provide the Vols with much needed depth while Tyler Smith, a 6-7 transfer from Iowa, and J.P. Prince, a 6-8 transfer from Arizona, will give the squad even more experience athleticism and size.
The Following is a Q&A with third-year Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl entering the 2007-08 season:
What are your expectations entering the year?
“Like every year, we are always going to set the bar high. Our goal is to compete for the conference championship. It has been demonstrated in the recent past that if you are good enough to win the Southeastern Conference championship then you are good enough to win it all. However, there are several factors that come into play like experience, depth, talent, having all of the dimensions, schedule and ultimately chemistry to be competitive in the best conference in college basketball.
“All we are trying to do is bring Tennessee basketball up to the level of excellence that the rest of the University of Tennessee enjoys and the rest of the athletic department enjoys. I’ve worked my whole life to be at a place like Tennessee. I’ve had to move my family way too much in order to get here. Now that we are here, there is no place I’d rather be. It is great to be a Tennessee Vol.”
How do you manage the increased expectations?
“Nobody will have higher expectations for us than we will have for ourselves. Where we don’t want to get to is a place where we stop enjoying our success just because it is expected. Our first two years here were so much fun because both years we achieved a level higher than we could have reasonably anticipated. Now, it is reasonable to think that we could go beyond that. Yet we have to understand that, in sports, lots of things have to fall right for us. But, clearly, our roster has never been better positioned to realize our goals.”
What are the strengths of this year’s team?
“Our ability to play hard and unselfishly have been trademarks here. We have added depth which should be a benefit with our uptempo style. We have great balance, depth and experience now, especially in the backcourt with three senior guards and then Ramar Smith. I think that losing Dane Bradshaw will be a bigger loss than people think. His presence on the floor made everyone better. While he will be replaced by a player with more traditional size at power forward, his contribution will be difficult to duplicate.”
What are your biggest concerns entering the season?
“Defense, rebounding, our ability to score inside and to make free throws have been challenges for us. Those are what win championships and we have not been as solid as we needed to be in those areas.
“This team has never been past the Sweet 16 and hasn’t won an SEC Tournament championship or overall SEC title in a while. I believe that, to build a program, you take steps and you put yourself in position to be competitive every year and then you play it out. I can’t allow expectations to have this thing played out before we even take the floor. There is a lot of road to travel between here and the end of a basketball season. Keeping my guys hungry and humble will be paramount.”
Over the last two seasons Tennessee’s schedule has been rated as one of the most difficult in the nation with a blend of high-profile non-conference games in addition to Southeastern Conference play. How will this year’s schedule stack up?
“Our schedule is once again as strong as anyone in the country is playing. One of the things we are trying to do is live by a saying Coach (Ray) Mears had, “Anywhere, Anyhow, Anytime, Bar Nothing.” We don’t put up the kind of gaudy numbers that some people will in terms of wins because of our schedule. We played against both teams in last season’s national championship game and visit this year’s preseason No. 1 team in addition to several other high-profile games. The schedule is everything you could want. It will send my players the message that I think it will prepare us . As a team, I think we can handle it.”
Thompson-Boling Arena has undergone major renovations, adding luxury suites and side court loge seats, in addition to a new practice facility. What is the significance of this new construction?
“It is all about commitment. I think there is a real commitment to basketball at the University of Tennessee. However, Thompson-Boling Arena needed a major renovation. We are going from the largest on-campus basketball-only facility in the country to one of the finest. With the addition of the Pratt Pavilion, our players will be able to train year round in the finest practice facility in the country. Our players have trained this offseason with a commitment that I have never seen.”
Where is Tennessee basketball on the national scene?
“My goal is the same every year. I want us to be a Top 25 program. The last two years we have managed to finish in the Top 25. The longer that we are there, the better chance we have to stay there.”
Jordan Howell was a steadying influence for an inexperienced backcourt last season. What is it that makes him so important to the team’s success?
“His ability to shoot the ball, experience of being a fifth-year senior and willingness to accept any role — whether it be point or off the ball. Jordan will be rewarded for the work he does off the court, in the classroom and for his his unselfish play.”
JaJuan Smith ranked ninth in the SEC in scoring with 15.2 points per game and was one of only two players in the SEC (Chris Lofton) that ranked among the top 10 in both scoring and steals. Will he continue to fly under the radar?
“JaJuan might have been our most valuable player in the sense that he was our second leading scorer, his shooting percentages were way up and he was second in the conference in steals. Arguably he was one of our best defensive players. He always took the toughest matchup. When Chris was out with the ankle injury, JaJuan carried us.
“He is one of those guys that gets overlooked. He didn’t make first, second or third team all-conference. As a sophomore he was the best sixth-man in the conference but he didn’t get it. I think JaJuan is pretty motivated, and I think he is pretty excited about the future. He is a player who has improved every year. JaJuan is a very important cog to this machine.”
Chris Lofton established himself as a natural leader and one of the best players in the nation last year, earning SEC Player of the Year and second team All-America honors. Every year he has added something new to his game. What’s next?
“Chris Lofton was the best shooter in the country last year, and now he is one of the best players in the country. Every year dimensions have been added to his game. It is great when the hardest worker is one of your best players. We are going to be asking Chris to make more plays for others, continue to get to the foul line more and be in the best condition of his life. His conditioning is important so he can be effective defensively and free himself up more offensively.
“Chris is getting great experience this summer working Kobe Bryant’s camp and hopefully with USA Basketball. His game is really suited for international play where he will see a lot of zone. Chris is a zone buster.”
Ramar Smith spent much of his freshman season learning the point guard position on the run. How will having a season of experience help?
“No player in college basketball was put in a more difficult position last year than Ramar Smith. The toughest transition from high school to college is at point guard. His toughness and skill give him an ability to make tough baskets and defend. He has worked hard in the offseason and has improved his perimeter shooting. He’s just a winner.”
As a freshman, Wayne Chism had the opportunity to play against some of the top post players in the nation. How will that help him in the future?
“Wayne is an extremely talented player who has a good feel for the game. He’s a big man who can move his feet, and that bodes well for you both offensively and defensively. When you look at the matchup against Greg Oden, he didn’t score against Wayne Chism very often. Wayne has an ability to do things on the perimeter and make big shots. He has matured physically and emotionally.”
Duke Crews ranked among the SEC’s leading offensive rebounders last season despite being an undersized post. What makes him so effective?
“Duke Crews gave us a physical, athletic dimension that we lacked. For his size, he is a tremendous rebounder and around the basket he was an extremely productive player. There were times that Duke could turn it on athletically to step up and allow us to compete against some of the best front lines in the country. When Duke gets to be conditioned to where he can do it every possession, and when his skill packages increase, he is going to be an even more effective player. You can’t take for granted his ability to score around the basket, get offensive rebounds, get to the foul line and step up physically and athletically.”
How important is it to have a strong defender like Josh Tabb in the lineup?
“He’s a defensive stopper. Sometimes less is more offensively. When you have so many weapons out there offensively, sometimes having Josh out there offensively makes you a better team because he does not require a great deal of offense. He is a terrific athlete. He brings a dimension that we need to be able to win championships. He is a nightmare for opponents defensively because he can put a lot of pressure on the ball. He is a very physical player. Josh would make a terrific strong safety because he is not afraid to put the wood on you.”
How has Ryan Childress improved since arriving at Tennessee?
“I don’t know that there is a player in the conference that improved more from their freshman to sophomore year than Ryan Childress. He recognized the level that he was at and responded to it. He got lean, and he was always mean. He got to where he was moving better and his confidence increased. He worked diligently on his outside shooting and by the end of the year, the way he was playing in the NCAA Tournament, it makes you pretty excited about what he can bring to the table next season.”
Last year the Vols lacked depth in the post. How will the addition of Brian Williams help resolve that?
“Brian is a big man with a very high basketball IQ. He dropped 50 pounds in the last two years to change his body. He’s got quick feet and great hands. He has a terrific upside. He is a natural rebounder and defender. He is going to become a good scorer. He’s got a great future.”
How will an athletic scorer like Cameron Tatum fit in the lineup?
“Cameron is long and athletic. He can really heat it up offensively. He needs to get stronger and more defensive-minded. He has a great future in our program. I think he is talented enough to compete at the upper division of this league.”
A transfer from Arizona, J.P. Prince spent the second half of the 2006-07 season practicing with the team. How has he improved in that time?
“J.P. came to us at 6-foot-6, 180-pounds and now he is 6-7, 205. People questioned his toughness, ability to play hard and his outside shooting. I think he has really worked hard to answer that challenge.
“J.P. is very versatile. He can play four positions, one through four. He is also a player that can make other players better.”
A third team All-Big Ten player at Iowa as a freshman last season, Tyler Smith was granted a transfer waiver and will be eligible to play the 2007-08 campaign at UT. How will he fit in with the Vols?
“Tyler is really a perfect fit for our style of play. It is great to have him back, but I have to say that I wish it was under different circumstances. I am glad he is in my life.
“I think Tyler is a terrifically productive player. He is unselfish and makes his teammates better. Athletically he’s got some really special gifts. He needs to continue to add to his range. He can be a physical defender and that will be a huge factor for us.”
NOTE: Tyler Smith transferred to Tennessee to be closer to home and a family member with an illness. The NCAA Administrative Review Subcommittee granted Smith a transfer waiver in June 2007 so he will not have to sit out the 2007-08 season as a transfer.
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Story Courtesy: UT Sports Information