Easily the most competitive and most difficult spot on this rotation, which of five candidates will join CJ Watson, Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith on the All-Decade Team?
A word on how we've broken this up: any player with a significant number of starts in their career at center will go in the next group. This does allow for some players who've played both the 4 and the 5 at Tennessee (like CJ Black) to go in that second group, but it also means you have some incredibly difficult choices today. However, I think it's most fair when we're picking a starting lineup to make it look most similar to what the Vols actually put on the floor - everyone in this group today was never the "center" in the Vols' starting lineup. That's a long way of answering the question "How come we can't just put Tyler Smith and Ron Slay both in there?"
Five Vols spanning the entire decade with very different styles of play come into question here...we break down each option in an attempt to find the best of the post players at Tennessee this decade...
We start with Isaiah Victor, who began his career at Tennessee at the tail end of the 90s, and who played a role in Kevin O'Neill's decision to leave Tennessee for Northwestern: an administrative decision from then-AD Doug Dickey didn't allow Victor to play in 1997, even though he could have probably been cleared academically. By the time IV's career began, O'Neill was out and Jerry Green was in...but it didn't take long for Victor to show his potential.
Victor was solid for four years, finishing with a career average of 10.4 points per game to go with 6.4 rebounds. He was at his best in his senior season in 2001, scoring 12.4 points per game with a surprisingly deft shooting touch. The 6'9" Vol was a force inside and out on some of Tennessee's best teams.
Bridging the gap between Jerry Green and Buzz Peterson was Marcus Haislip, who was largely a role player under Green in his first two seasons, averaging just over five points and two rebounds off the bench. When Green was dismissed and Peterson took over, Haislip entered the starting lineup in 2002. And combined with Ron Slay's ACL tear early in that season, Haislip's increased minutes turned into huge productivity.
The 6'10" forward exploded in 2002 with 16.7 points per game, 6.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest. The depleted Vols failed to qualify for the postseason, but Haislip had done his job: his draft stock went meteoric, and Haislip left school to become the 13th pick in the 2002 NBA Draft to Milwaukee. Although nothing ever came of his NBA career, his one season talent burst was a treat to watch.
Everything in Tennessee Basketball can now be broken up into before-BruceBall and BruceBall. But before Pearl came along and changed the perception and reality of the program, no Vol in the last two decades was more beloved than Ron Slay.
Slay came to campus in the same recruiting class as Haislip and Jon Higgins in 2000, and quickly endeared himself to the fans by donning a Scream mask in the Midnight Madness dunk contest as a freshman. He quickly became the sixth man on the talented 2000 team that made the Sweet 16, and drew four first half fouls on Auburn's Chris Porter in a huge SEC showdown that season. He ended his freshman year with 9.7 points and 4.4 rebounds off the bench.
Back off the bench the following year, Slay upped the ante to 12.9 points and 5.3 rebounds on the ill-fated 2001 team that cost Jerry Green his job. No Vol has ever done more off the bench than Slay in his first two seasons.
His knee injury cut short his junior season, but it was as a senior that Slay wrote his name into Vol lore. The 2003 team was Slay's team, no doubt, and the headbands that are now so common at Thompson-Boling started spreading from Slay's forehead to the rest of the '03 group. Slay was a beast that season, averaging 21.2 points per game - the best single-season average of any Vol this decade (yes, better than anything Chris Lofton did, who had 20.8 per in 2007). He dumped 38 points and 11 rebounds on a good New Mexico team. Slay finished the season also averaging 7.8 rebounds per contest.
Slay played to the crowd (and to the refs), and his facial expressions and personality made him one of the most fun Vols to watch in Tennessee Basketball history.
The '03 Vols were only the second team in SEC history to go 9-7 in conference but miss the NCAA Tournament, robbed when Jon Higgins was kicked off the team for academic reasons the week of the SEC Tournament and finishing 17-10, qualifying for the NIT. But Slay would be named the 2003 SEC Player of the Year, joining Lofton as the only Vols to earn that honor this decade.
As we enter the BruceBall era, there are two distinctly different players that stand out.
We start with Dane Bradshaw, who has no impressive stat lines to speak of. But he embodied the new era of Vol Basketball, moving from guard to power forward at 6'4", and then holding his own every single night. Bradshaw was a scrapper, he played more than hurt, and would be named to Sports Illustrated's All-Glue Team twice, being named captain of that squad his senior season.
And Bradshaw also had a knack for the end of game magic. He tipped in a game winner against Oklahoma State in 2007, and made the buckets that beat eventual National Champion Florida in Knoxville and in Gainesville, the latter coming off his own steal and clinching the SEC Eastern Division.
Bradshaw has written a book about his final season, has a scholarship named after him, and remains one of, if not the, most loved Vols of the decade.
Tyler Smith is currently in the process of determining whether or not he'll come back for one final year as a Vol, but his first two were very productive under Pearl. The Iowa transfer averages 15.2 points per game to go with 5.9 rebounds thus far in his Tennessee career, and has shown the ability to be a force both as the third option in 2008, and as the primary option in 2009, where he was named first-team All-SEC.
Whether he comes out now or stays another year, Smith will almost certaily be an NBA Draft selection, joining Haislip in that designation this decade. Should he stay, Smith will have a chance to become the 2010 SEC Player of the Year.
You can see the career statistical comparison of all five players here, from statsheet.com.