Basketball's a funny, unique sport - you can't easily separate individual contributions like you can in baseball, and it's not a super-team game like football. The most similar sport is soccer, near as I can tell; it's nearly impossible to win with only one player dominating in either sport, but play still has to funnel through a certain player. This year, that guy was Scotty Hopson. After learning at the feet of Wayne Chism and JP Prince - who, it should be noted, took a while to get going themselves - this was still Hopson's team, even with the introduction of Tobias Harris to the fray. The Vols looked to be in good hands early on; we all watched the Villanova and Pitt games, but just for the record: 18 against ‘Nova, 27 against Pitt. Then things got bad.
7 points against Oakland, 1-7 from the floor.
13 points (on 19 FG attempts) against Charlotte.
8 points against USC; 1-5 from the floor.
Hopson isn't a natural box score stuffer; he's content to play off and do what a shooting guard is supposed to do. Hence, when he struggles from the floor, Tennessee is going to have issues, but issues doesn't really describe any of those games. On the balance of talent, those games were all winnable. But it's not about talent; if it was, the team could've shrugged off a bad night and picked up at least one of those wins. We learned something from those losses, though: this is Scotty's team. And that's a bit scary.
The big concern with Hopson has always been consistency, and we weren't sure if that needed to be chalked up to being an underclassman or just the way his game is played. We wanted to turn the advent of Flat-Top Hopson was a subconscious sign - he's grown up (all the way to 1991, apparently) and he's ready to be a leader. This was always the key to the season - with a healthy, dominant, consistent Hopson, the sky was the limit. Witness our mood immediately following the Pitt victory for proof of that. The unfortunate truth is he's not there yet. Not like we want him to be there
If you're unsure of Scotty being the leader, ask yourself this: what's happened with the team when he's struggled? Check the Pitt and Villanova games (when he's on) against the last three games (when he plainly hasn't been on). The team's performance has still revolved around Hopson's performance, which - if it doesn't indicate leadership, it at worst indicates a projection of his performance onto his teammates. I struggle with a word to describe it; it's the basketball equivalent of picking up personality traits of people you hang around with frequently - do that often enough and you start acting more like them. Hopson has basically imprinted himself on the team.
The one exception to Hopson's influence? Tobias Harris. He's very much a flow-of-the-game type of player, and he's a treat to watch. He isn't prone to responding badly when Scotty gets in a rut - heck, he's the only guy who's scored double figures in each of the last three games. Still, he's the exception, and I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing that he does his own thing. Right now, it's a good thing. Later on, it might be a bad thing, if he's taking touches away from a hot hand or two while he's gone cold. I'm not sure if that's a legitimate concern or one I'm talking up because we haven't seen that kind of game yet. It may be an issue at some point.
Let's assume for a minute that Scotty isn't the team leader. If he's not, who is? We've already covered Tobias - he doesn't have the kind of game or personality that lends itself well to an alpha dog role. I'm not sure that Cam Tatum can handle it yet; Tatum is very good at what he does, but I don't know if alpha is part of that description. Same for Melvin Goins, who I've been generally impressed with but he has the same problems as Hopson does.
There's one guy on the team who might be able to do it - Brian Williams. The rebirth of B-Will has been one of the more enjoyable stories of the last few years (did you know he lost some weight?), and to see him step into that role would be fantastic. He's got the fire for it, and more importantly he's been the only guy who's raised his game over the last few games. He's trying, but the team hasn't responded yet - if it does, that may come as a relief to Hopson. If it does, we may see a rebirth of the Chism/Prince combination.
In the meantime, the Vols go as Hopson does. This is their fate; it's not a bad fate as things go, but it is a maddeningly inconsistent one. Consistency is a bit of a skill, isn't it? Hopson hasn't learned it yet, and while he hurts to figure it out, the team will struggle. There's no guarantee Hopson will ever figure out consistency - there are a ton of guys at the next level who never figured it out. That means they need Hopson to find it in a hurry, or they need to respond to a second leader. There's time to figure it out, but in the meantime, the games get tougher, and conference play (and an eight-game suspension for Bruce Pearl) looms.