With the Vols averaging a league-low 14.8 free throws per contest through their first 10 conference games - barely half of their non-conference average of 27.4 per game - some fans suggested that SEC officials were piling on Tennessee for recruiting violations that already cost head coach Bruce Pearl $1.5 million in salary, his off-campus recruiting privileges and an eight-game suspension.
The conspiracy talk has quieted a bit since the Vols shot 35 free throws Wednesday night vs. South Carolina. Only twice this season has the Big Orange attempted more foul shots - shooting 40 in Game 2 and 37 in Game 11. Each time the opponent was Belmont.
Junior wing Scotty Hopson, who shot 7 free throws vs. South Carolina, surmised that Tennessee's increase in foul shots can be traced to a change in approach.
"We started off at beginning of the season getting to the line a whole lot," he said, "but we got away from attack mode and being aggressive. It's good to see us getting back to it."
For Tennessee fans, it was especially good to see Hopson getting back to attack mode. The Vols are 15-4 this season when he scores 15 points or more. His 23-point performance against South Carolina may have been his most aggressive of the season.
"Definitely there were some gaps in the defense that I felt I could take advantage of," he said. "But also, it was me having the mindset of getting to the basket at all costs. It was my will to get to the rim and finish plays."
Melvin Goins, who shot 8 free throws Wednesday night, agreed that the dramatic increase in free throws reflects an attitude adjustment among the Vols.
"We were more aggressive - going at the rim and going at their defense where they were weak," the senior point guard said.
Now that the Vols are shooting free throws again, their outlook would be even brighter if they would start making free throws again. They sank a paltry 60 percent (21 of 35) vs. Carolina. For the season they are shooting just 67.5 percent from the line, ranking eighth among the 12 SEC teams in that category.
Hopson qualifies as something of an expert on foul shooting, having raised his free-throw percentage from 58.8 percent last season to 73.1 this season.
"There is a mindset and a conscious effort to be confident when you get to the line," he said. "I think a lot of times guys are second-guessing theirself and we might not be shooting the same way at all times. It's a confidence thing to step up to the line and know you can make it."