Basketball goal: to be 'the best'

Being the best team in the SEC East is a worthy goal. Being the best team in the entire SEC is a better goal. But Tennessee's Bruce Pearl has an even loftier goal in mind for the 2009-10 basketball season.

"We're setting the bar as high as you can set it," he said this week. "We want to be the best team Tennessee has ever fielded."

Toward that end Pearl has revived the pressing defense and uptempo offense that helped Tennessee go 31-5 in 2007-08. These measures will exploit the Vols' depth and exhaust opponents. They also will keep Tennessee's players focused and motivated.

"It's been a lot different but it's been very exciting," senior point guard Bobby Maze said this week. "That's one of the reasons I came to Tennessee - to play that uptempo style, get up and down and make plays.

"We have so many talented players, and all of the guys on our team can score the basketball. Pressing gives guys extra opportunities to get quick buckets. Walking the ball up the court, it's kind of hard to get everybody eight to nine shots a game when you've got 10 or 11 good players on our team."

In addition to a quicker tempo, Tennessee has a better situation at point guard this year. Last season Maze was a junior college scorer trying to become a major college setup man. Moreover, backup Josh Tabb was a wing trying to play the point. Although Maze and Tabb had their moments, both struggled mightily at times.

Now Maze has a year of experience in Tennessee's system and a capable backup in Melvin Goins. Thus, the point-guard position appears much more stable than a year ago.

"I feel a lot more comfortable. I've been in the system and I know what the coach wants me to do," Maze said. "Last year I didn't have a point guard that had been here a year to teach me and show me the ropes at that position. I kind of had to learn everything on my own."

Clearly, Pearl likes what he's gotten from each of his point guards in preseason.

"Bobby's got the edge," the coach said, "but Melvin had a good week at the end of last week, showed us some things he can do defensively."

If Maze and Goins come through at the point, this could be a big year for the Vols, who are well stocked at the other four positions.

Scotty Hopson hit 15 of 19 shots, including 6 of 8 from behind the arc, in the two exhibition games and appears primed for a big sophomore year as the shooting guard.

"Offensively, Scotty clearly appears to be more comfortable," Pearl said, subsequently adding: "I absolutely would like to see Scotty make more plays off defense - more steals. Even in the games he's not been as much of a factor defensively as I think he's capable of. But he's making good decisions - when to take the ball to the basket, when to shoot. I'm very pleased with his offensive tempo."

Backing Hopson is walk-on freshman Skylar McBee, who hit 6 of 12 shots from 3-point range in the two exhibitions and provides a lift off the bench due to his all-out hustle.

Senior J.P. Prince (6-8, 205) and sophomore Cameron Tatum (6-6, 197) will split time at the small forward spot.

All-American Tyler Smith is again ready to play power forward with Wayne Chism again ready to start in the post and provide relief minutes for Smith at power forward.

"At four, you've got Tyler and Wayne primarily," Pearl said, "then Renaldo (Woolridge) and Steven Pearl battling behind those guys."

The post position is loaded. Behind Chism (6-9, 245) are burly junior Brian Williams (6-10, 270) and promising freshman Kenny Hall (6-9, 220).

"The five is probably our deepest position with Wayne, Brian and Kenny," Pearl said.

Hall has been so impressive in preseason that Woolridge, a 6-9 sophomore, essentially is the 11th man on the UT roster. That makes him the odd-man-out for the time being, since Pearl plans to go with a 10-man rotation.

The Vols open the regular season Friday night, hosting Austin Peay. Tipoff is set for 9 with SportSouth televising.

$5 TICKETS FOR VETERANS

In honor of Veterans Day, Tennessee is offering $5 tickets to the Vol-Austin Peay game for all active and retired military personnel and their families. Veterans can purchase their discounted tickets by showing their military ID at the main Thompson-Boling Arena ticket office.

"The men and women who serve our country in uniform are the ultimate Volunteers," UT head coach Bruce Pearl said. "I thank them for their sacrifices every chance I get, and I never take for granted the freedoms we all enjoy thanks to them. I'll remind our team before the game to honor our veterans with nothing less than our best effort on the court."

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