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Tennessee 81 Mississippi State 76 - The Scotty Hopson Everybody Wanted

It might not be enough to make everybody believe it yet...but it's at least a big step in the right direction.  After scoring 14 points on an otherwise forgettable return trip to Kentucky on Saturday, Scotty Hopson went up against the team he'd originally committed to.

If Mississippi State - a team who this year has been all about jacking threes, and on this night shot 30 of them - was envisioning what Hopson would've been like as a freshman wearing maroon, it probably looked something like what he did wearing orange tonight.

One airballed free throw aside, Hopson scored a career-high 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting (3-of-6 from behind the arc), with 6 rebounds and 3 assists.  This is the third time this season and the second time in as many games where Hopson hasn't looked like a freshman or a mere shooter, he's looked like a basketball player.  And a good one.

And boy, could the Vols use more of him right now.

The greater leadership and scoring role he takes, the easier the task for everyone else.  The Vols still got their usual from Wayne Chism (12 points) and Tyler Smith (13 points, 9 rebounds).  And they got another night from Bobby Maze where he decides to fill up the stat sheet in one half, scoring all of his 14 points in the second act. 

But it was Hopson who created, both from behind the arc and driving to the hole, and allowed Tennessee to crack the 80 point barrier for the first time since - wait for it - South Carolina on January 17. 

Those same Cocks made their biggest statement of the season with an 18 point beatdown of Kentucky in Columbia, which leaves them alone atop the SEC East leaderboard.  The Cats, Vols and Gators are all a game back at 8-5, and again...none of these teams can feel totally safe about their NCAA Tournament fates just yet.

Tennessee, at 17-10 and 8-5 in the SEC, faces the gauntlet next week:  at Florida on Sunday, at South Carolina on Wednesday.  There's no fate but what we make.  The Vols could still win the East or come in fourth...and look, yeah, there's a home finale with Alabama hanging out there that should give us nine conference wins, which should be enough to get in...but there's way too much chance in that equation for me.  Now is not the time for is the time for more of our best basketball, heading to Gainesville and Columbia with our fate still in our own hands.

And more of that best basketball includes more of tonight from Scotty Hopson.  Is this the breakthrough?  Is Hopson about to consistently become what everybody thought he was?

Stay tuned.