Thank You, Cameron Tatum

He is arguably less popular than Tennessee's other senior, who is perhaps most known for making us say "Eric Berry" in a certain way or for knocking down some huge threes in a game two years ago. Renaldo Woolridge - who hit five threes in Rupp Arena and hasn't been heard from since - has always been one of our favorites on the court because of what he did off the court, and despite fewer minutes we're going to miss Swiperboy for sure.

But Cameron Tatum is the rarest of breeds these days: a redshirt senior with four years of experience in the starting lineup. College basketball just doesn't see players like this anymore, as guys are more likely to flame out or go pro early than to stay all five years and be a solid contributor.

Tatum has drawn the ire of many in the fanbase, including me, at times during his career for not being exactly what we wanted him to be. After watching the 2008 season from the sideline - the last Vol to be there in Memphis the night we hit number one, the last Vol who was there when we won the SEC Championship - he looked like the three point shooter we needed in the absence of Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith. Tatum hit 5 of 6 from the arc against Georgetown in the Old Spice Classic, then hit 5 of 10 in an overtime loss to Gonzaga in Knoxville. But he never rediscovered that touch the rest of the 2009 campaign, scoring double digits just three times in SEC play that year.

As a sophomore he looked ready to overtake J.P. Prince at the three early in the year, scoring 42 points in the first three games. But his production decreased the rest of the way in non-conference play, and then all came to a halt when he was in the car on January 1, 2010. Tatum's story could've come to an end there, but it didn't. Back in the lineup after a five game suspension, he was crucial in Tennessee's 61-60 win over Florida with 8 points and 5 rebounds. He was there again when the Vols upset #2 Kentucky with 9 points and 5 rebounds. In part, the 2010 Vols found their best basketball when Brian Williams finally returned to the lineup in late February...but Tatum was a huge part of that too, averaging 10.6 points off the bench in UT's last four regular season games and the first two rounds of the SEC Tournament.

He had an o-fer against San Diego State in the NCAA Tournament, but responded with 11 against Ohio to help the Vols advance to the Sweet 16. And he kept Tennessee afloat against Ohio State with 11 points in the first half. It would be all he got, but the Vols needed every single one of them. Plain and simple, the 2010 Vols don't become the program's most successful team without Cameron Tatum. From what is probably my favorite story that I've ever written for this site:

As every possession is so valuable in March, there were a ton of valuable shots in this game.

The first came from Cameron Tatum, who woke the Vols up with a three to make it 11-7, hit two free throws, and then converted a three point play to give Tennessee their first lead at 15-13. Tatum also hit a three in the final minute of the first half, giving him 11 points in the first 20 minutes. Those 11 would be all he would get...but every single one of them was huge.

And then there was last year: Tennessee struggling for reasons on and off the court, a new cast of characters, and two players who were clearly the most talented on the floor in Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris. After a solid year as a sixth man and some flashes of three point shooting in his past, we all desperately wanted Tatum to become that third option...but it just never materialized with any consistency. He was brilliant along with the rest of the Vols early: 17 against Villanova, 14 at Pittsburgh. He had a career high 21 in the overtime loss to Florida. But he also scored three point or less seven times in SEC play. The inconsistency was maddening as Tennessee's season and the future of our program spiraled out of control.

Then came Cuonzo Martin.

Cameron Tatum could've been the least likely player to buy in. A senior whose playing time would be immediately challenged by the signing of Josh Richardson. All of us wanted to see what Jordan McRae could do. Having spent a season frustrated with Tatum's inability to become the third man, few of us believed he could suddenly transform into "the man"...and when Trae Golden and Jeronne Maymon assumed that role early in the season, Tatum could've again become an afterthought.

Instead, he became a better all-around player. And he has become the guy that makes everyone else on the floor better.

The scoring inconsistency hasn't changed; Tatum averages 8.8 points per game, a figure that's included 16 against Kentucky and 15 against UConn, as well as goose eggs against Mississippi State, Auburn, Kentucky the second time, and at Florida. But what has changed is his overall value everywhere else: Tatum averages four rebounds and three assists per game, both numbers career highs. His free throw shooting is at 74.4% this year; he had never shot above 68% in any of his first three seasons. And like all the other Vols, Tatum plays defense and plays it very well.

It was Tatum who said that Cuonzo Martin is the sort of man you run through a wall for. But it's Tatum himself that has become an integral part of what Cuonzo's team does, a presence on the floor that doesn't have to score to be felt. He certainly still can - witness the overtime in Baton Rouge this week - but he continues to trail only Trae Golden in minutes per game at a crowded position on the floor because of his overall impact on the rest of the team.

Tatum never became "the guy", but we see now that's never who he was...and that's okay. It was Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith when he started. Then it was Tyler Smith's team. Then it was Chism, Prince, and Maze. And last year it was Scotty and Tobias. As this 2012 team has become about Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes, and still relies quite heavily on the sort of night Golden is having, Tatum has found a home in an expanded role from the one he played as a sixth man in 2010: contribute in a number of ways that don't have to be scoring, and above all else, make your teammates better. That's what senior leaders do.

A lot of other guys would've left at a number of points. A lot of other guys would've demanded the spotlight and sulked when they didn't get it. But Tatum stayed. And Tatum has again found his role with this team, leading by example in every aspect of the game, becoming a leader for the coach that has brought out his most complete basketball.

And for that, we say thanks.

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