Quite frankly, it's about time. For the resident Boston Terrier of this Tennessee team, the big question this season was whether Scotty Hopson could mature into a truly dominant scorer. Hopson's game isn't and has never been all-around play, so it's been a question of whether he can get his points effectively. He can chip in with some boards or assists, but it's not a huge aspect of his play.
For the longest time, it was a question of whether he could get his points, period. Save the notable performances against Villanova (6-11 FG, 5-8 FT, 18 pts, 3 assists) and Pittsburgh (10-13 FG, 4-5 FT, 27 pts, 2 assists, 1 heart ripped out) in a strong early-season campaign, things fell apart after that. He was getting his points still, but it came at the expense of the rest of the team. That's not how teams win, and that's not what you want from your first option on offense.
For the better part of two months, shots weren't falling regularly for Hopson. In baseball, when you're struggling to get hits, you compensate. You get more patient, look for things you can take the other way, practice on being able to see the ball better. Going up blindly hacking doesn't help anything; for a 2-guard, if you're not making shots, you can get to the line. Hopson wasn't doing that for a full 6 weeks; save a 6-8 performance at the line in the first Florida game, he didn't hit more than 4 FTs in a single game. That isn't good; 21 shots to get 24 points (Charleston), 13 to get 13 (UConn), 14 to get 15 (Georgia) - those are numbers that can hamstring a team.
And then something flipped. Maybe he finally realized what he's capable of. Maybe fear of missing the tournament got to him. Maybe he was sick of seeing game after game dropped due to a lack of scoring, a lack of guts, a lack of another critical option. Regardless, the last four games have been the best Scotty we've seen all season, and it's about time.
South Carolina: 16 to get 23 with 7 FTs attempted (6-7 from the line). It's easy enough to write this off - South Carolina isn't especially good defensively, and as much as we get annoyed at the Vols' propensity to foul, South Carolina can dish it out as well as we can. Not to mention that the men are appreciably better than South Carolina, so we can write this off, right?
Georgia: 19 to get 32(!) with 10 FTs attempted (6-10 from the line). This was the Bizarro Mid-Season game; Scotty absolutely showed up and dominated, but it's tough to move a mule. (We'll see this again shortly.) If nine guys dig their heels in and decide they're not doing anything, there's only so much Scotty can do. Those are the limits the men are working with, and while we hoped that wasn't going to be the case, it happens.
Vanderbilt: 16 to get 19 with 8 FTs attempted (6-8 from the line) and one heart ripped out. The whole team was awful for the first 30 minutes, and then the tide turned. Hopson was the heart of the tornado that swept through Memorial Gym, and his fouling out of Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang on near back-to-back-to-back possessions (he was also responsible for Tchiengang's third, too) was as vicious as I've ever seen Hopson. That's the mentality you want your scoring leader to have, and this W simply doesn't happen without him.
Mississippi State: 16 to get 22 with 7 FTs attempted (4-7 from the line). Yeah, if he goes 6-7 from the line it's another W, but like Georgia, this one isn't on him.
That's the issue now, isn't it? With the end of the regular season and tournaments looming, team leadership is all over the place. Bruce Pearl has called out the team for a lack of leadership (and Melvin Goins responded, in some form at least). The question, near as I can tell, isn't whether or not there is a leader. Hopson's stepped into that role. The questions are whether the team recognizes he's that leader, and whether the team can respond to his leadership. Hopson isn't a Bobby Maze or a JP Prince; strong vocal leadership isn't his style. (Tobias Harris is wired in a similar manner.) Among this team, Brian Williams probably comes closest to a Maze or Prince-type leader. Does the team need someone to yell at them when they're screwing up? I'm not sure I understand why; save Tobias Harris, all the critical pieces of this team are upperclassmen.
What scares me is that this team seems like it needs someone to yell at them in order to step up; since so many of these guys have been in the system for so long, are they just used to it? Did Maze, Prince, and Wayne Chism do too good of a job last year? Is everyone spoiled now? I'm not sure I even want an answer to that last question; if the answer is yes, this team isn't going anywhere no matter how much we hold our breath.
Should Bruce Pearl provide leadership? Joel already addressed that somewhat; that's a complete mess of a question in its own right. At some point, if a team's going to go anywhere, it has to be reliant on itself; a coach can only get a team to the floor. It's up to the team to handle itself once it gets on the floor.
It's time for the team to recognize they have a floor leader. The difference between this year and last year is that he's leading by example, not by voice. It's a different style of leadership, but it's leadership all the same. Fall in line and this team might actually go somewhere we all want to go.
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