Can Tatum Lead?

 

It seems like Cameron Tatum has been at the University of Tennessee for more than a decade.

Back when the Chris Loftons and JaJuan Smiths roamed the Big Orange Terrain, Tatum -- already looking like an old man even then, according to his jesting teammates -- sat on the sideline. He is a Smoky Mountain Methusela.

In actuality, the 6-foot-7 guard is entering his fifth year in Knoxville, but his circuitous route to get into Bruce Pearl's rotation and his extreme ups and downs since has felt like a lifetime in basketball years.

Now, he prepares for his final season with the Vols as a grandfatherly presence on a completely revamped UT basketball team that has seen a face lift in personnel and the coaching staff following Bruce Pearl's premature demise. Gone is Scotty Hopson, who eschewed his final year of eligibility to go into the abyss of not getting drafted. Gone is freshman phenom Tobias Harris, who was one-and-done and onto a first-round pick. Gone are five other regulars -- Melvin Goins, Brian Williams, Josh Bone, John Fields and Steven Pearl.

All that remains of UT's top six scorers from a 19-15 topsy-turvy final year of Pearl's terrific but sometimes tumultuous reign is Tatum, whose 8.8 ppg ranked third on the 2010-11 squad. For a guy who has never been asked to lead -- and honestly never proven he could -- there is an awful lot expected of the Lithonia, Ga., native who, seemingly forever ago, was the Georgia 4A player of the year and a can't-miss recruit. Especially with a new coach and a fresh start for a player needing one.

First-year coach Cuonzo Martin inherited a scrap heap of a basketball program decimated by early departures, scarred by NCAA investigations and written off by a fanbase still shattered over the loss of Pearl -- a Big Orange Icon. He needs scorers. More importantly, he needs leaders.

This year's team has a ridiculous number of newcomers -- six freshmen and a JUCO transfer. Only senior Renaldo Woolridge, juniors Kenny Hall and Skylar McBee and sophomores Jordan McRae and Trae Golden and the elder statesman Tatum spent their entire collegiate careers in orange. With a roster turnover like that, Martin HAS to depend on Tatum.

But can we?

That's the big question: Just which Tatum will we be getting this year?

There is the athletic, physical swingman who led the team with 16 hustle plays last season, showed the ability to be a special player in a big game against Florida on Jan. 11. In that game -- a heartbreaking 81-75 overtime loss to the Gators in Knoxville -- Tatum erupted for a team-high 21 points on 4-of-7 3-point shooting and was a difference-maker in a huge conference game. There also was the 15-point performance against Auburn where he scored from all over the floor.

Then, however, there's the inconsistent walking frustration Tatum is prone to become. In a one-point loss to the Gators in Gainesville, he sputtered for six points. He fumbled around for three points in a loss to Kentucky and just six in a setback against UConn. Then, there was his Great Disappearing Act in crunch time late last year. In an SEC tournament win over Arkansas and losses to Florida and in the NCAA tournament to Michigan, Tatum had six COMBINED points -- three against the Razorbacks, three against Michigan and a goose egg vs. the Gators. There was no appearance of the athlete who trounced UF earlier in the year. There are defensive lapses, shooting disappearances, hustle problems. It seems like a Hopsonesque lack of focus at times.

For the season, 8.8 points isn't terrible. But behind Tatum's numbers is an ugly 67% free-throw average, 37.5 field goal percentage and 27.2% clip from 3-point range. Though he started in all but one of UT's 34 games, his inconsistency was a microcosm of a disappointing 19-15 year.

Now, for better or worse, this looks like his team. Perhaps that's why the Vols are picked 11th overall in the SEC. But if there's one thing that isn't disputable it's this -- Tatum certainly has the talent to prove the doubters wrong. He has the complete game to lead when he puts everything together.

And Cuonzo certainly needs that on a squad that is as inexperienced as anybody in the nation.

Maybe Martin was being a little too optimistic when he told the media last week:

"I think we have the pieces to be successful, just now we have see where we get point production from. I think we'll be solid defensively. But you know how defense is: if you're not scoring basket all of a sudden, defending becomes tougher. For us, it's a matter of who can score the ball. We can put guys in a position to score, but they need to make plays."

But maybe he is banking on Tatum to generate opportunities. He will be one of the men put into that position more often than not. Can he produce? It may be the difference between a respectable UT season or a long Year One of the Martin Era.

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