Bruce Pearl's first three teams started three or four players who didn't top 6'4", but since their names were Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, and C.J. Watson to name a few, we did just fine living by the three. It was an exciting brand of basketball to watch, and Lofton especially was a once-in-a-generation shooter. Pearl's fourth team took just as many threes but clanged most of them, and last year the Vols matured into a team that didn't have to have the three ball to win.
Now only Melvin Goins doesn't top 6'4" in the starting lineup; the Vols look more like an NBA team, and have changed their style of play accordingly. One of the most impressive things about the performance in New York was how mature this team was, especially in its third week of the season, amid the distractions and without last year's core of Wayne Chism, J.P. Prince, and Bobby Maze. Tennessee's halfcourt defense and ball movement were outstanding, and UT wasn't tempted to live by the three, attempting 30 in two nights at Madison Square Garden, and bringing home the trophy playing a much more disciplined brand of basketball.
So tonight, MTSU came into Knoxville and trotted out some 2-3 zone for extended stretches, daring the Vols to shoot over it. Is Tennessee still a team that's capable of knocking down the three when we have to?
The answer, at least for tonight, was a resounding yes.
The Vols torched the nets for 11 of 24 from the arc, 45.8%. At one point in the first half, the Vols hit five straight in the middle of a 21-0 run that blew the game completely open after MTSU led 10-8. Everyone was in on it - you know it's a good night when your most reliable shooter, Cameron Tatum, went only 1 of 5. Scotty Hopson was 4 of 6. Skylar McBee had a pair, including one from just across halfcourt at the buzzer. And Tyler Summitt sent the fans home happy again with his second three in the final minutes this year. He's batting 1.000.
Also in on the action was Tobias Harris, who went 2 for 2 from the arc. Just another night for our favorite freshman, who set a new career high with 23 points on 7 of 11 shooting, along with 6 boards, 2 assists, 3 steals and a block. No big deal.
And that's the thing: it really does look like no big deal to him. He makes 23 points look effortless, so much so that you don't even really realize he has that many until you check the stats. Six games in, Tobias is making a case for the best freshman we've seen here since Allan Houston.
In the last decade, only three Vols have come in as true freshmen and become immediate, consistent starters. In his first six games as a true freshman, C.J. Watson had 50 combined points. Chris Lofton had 64. Scotty Hopson had 59. Tobias Harris has 102.
That's 17 points per game, and remember, we're #2 in the RPI for a reason - we haven't been playing D2 schools (...you know, not in games that count). Tobias is already the most consistent scorer on this team. And we're just getting started.
It was once again a familiar script: Tobias and Scotty provide the offense, with 19 for Hopson to complement the 23 from Tobias, and Brian Williams owns the glass. Williams had 9 boards in 20 minutes, leading the way in a +20 advantage on the glass for the Vols.
We get 11 days off now, and we'll spend all of them thinking that we're a very good basketball team. We can beat you with defense, we can hit free throws at the end of the game, we can beat you with ball movement, and we can knock down threes when need be. This team has the potential to have two very special players on it, and since it's still November, we can certainly have fun imagining how good Scotty and Tobias will eventually become by March as their roles become even more defined, and Tobias especially gets more experience.
On December 11, the #13 Vols will be on the road at #3 Pittsburgh. So we'll get another good test on that day...but so far, everything we've seen suggests it's one the Vols are certainly capable of winning.