Team preview: Tennessee

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2003-04 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: November 9, 2003, 1:56 PM ET
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After the trials and tribulations of his first season at Tennessee, Buzz Peterson needed to catch a few breaks in 2002-2003, and he did. Without question, things went a lot smoother in year two of Peterson's regime. From a 15-16 debut season that included the program's first NCAA Tournament miss in five years, the Vols were 17-12 a year ago.

But even a winning record and a return trip to the postseason-albeit the NIT-left Peterson frustrated. A major cause for that frustration was a Southeastern Conference rule that claimed the postseason eligibility of starting guard Jon Higgins. Higgins, a senior, had changed majors from business to math and, to stay on pace to graduate, he loaded up with four upper-level math classes in the fall semester. Because Higgins didn't pass at least two of the classes, he was ruled ineligible-not for the second semester, but for the postseason. Think that's a dumb rule? So do SEC coaches.

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Without their most reliable three-point shooter, the Vols, who had a legitimate chance to earn an NCAA Tournament bid with a good showing in the SEC Tournament, were easy pickings. They were ousted from the league tournament by Auburn, which meant bye bye Big Dance. And though they were given a home game against Georgetown in the NIT, they were easily outclassed by the Hoyas.

This season, Higgins (8.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.9 apg) is gone for good, but the Vols' biggest hole to fill was created by the departure of Ron Slay (21.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.1 apg), who led the league in scoring and was chosen its player of the year. Also gone is guard Thaydeus Holden (8.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.4 apg). Despite losing all that production, Peterson remains optimistic his program is headed in the right direction.

One of the major reasons for Peterson's confidence is the presence of sophomore point guard C.J. Watson (9.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 5.5 apg, 1.2 spg). Watson was handed the controls of the team from the first day of practice last season and responded admirably, earning a spot on the SEC's All-Freshman team.

As the season progressed and Watson improved accordingly, Peterson began to rely on him more and more. Watson wound up leading the SEC in minutes per game (35.7), and very nearly became just the second freshman ever to lead the SEC in assists. He tied for second by a fraction of an assist per game.

Watson's other numbers were impressive, too. His 1.9-1 assists to turnover ratio was solid. He rebounds exceptionally well for a guard and shot a solid .364 from three-point range. Watson could stand to improve his free-throw shooting (.653).

"I feel good about this team because of C.J. Watson," Peterson said. "As a coach, it's a relief to know that you've got such a solid, dependable kid at the point."

Watson had a productive summer, earning a spot on the U.S. Junior World Championship team. Watson averaged six points, two assists and 21 minutes of playing time as the U.S. finished in fifth place with a 7-1 record.

Another Vol who figures to play a key role wasn't eligible last year. Scooter McFadgon, a 6-5 junior, sat out as a red-shirt after transferring from Memphis. Peterson and his staff thought he was their best player over the course of a season's worth of practices, better even than Slay.

In 2000-01, McFadgon was the first freshman in seven years to start at Memphis, and he was chosen to Conference USA's All-Freshman team. A year later, he started 28 times and averaged 9.9 points, third on a team that won the NIT. The arrival of McFadgon will help offset the loss of Slay.

"I don't know if he can do it all [replace all Slay's points]," Peterson said. "But he'll get his points. He shoots the ball well and he's got good size for a wing. I think he can post up guards in this league. During his red-shirt year, we asked him to get stronger and to work on scoring off the dribble and he did that. We're excited to have him."

Another transfer who becomes eligible this year is 6-8 sophomore Jemere Hendrix, who began his career at Clemson. A foot injury suffered during the first semester of his freshman season limited his contributions and his statistics, but Hendrix showed Peterson enough in practice last season. And his work in the weight room endeared Hendrix to his coaches. Hendrix will play this season close to 240 pounds after showing up on campus last season at 215.

Hendrix can play either forward spot. "You can put him at different places," Peterson said. "The thing I like about him is that he's a great offensive rebounder. He anticipates well and doesn't back down. He's the only player I've seen who doesn't back down from Ron Slay."

If McFadgon and Hendrix are plugged in as starting forwards, they'll join 6-10 junior center Brandon Crump (11.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.0 bpg), who made strides last season as a starter. Crump shot 56 percent from the field and 75 percent from the free-throw line, so it isn't a stretch to suggest Crump should increase his scoring average with Slay gone. Crump can shoot a jump hook with either hand, knock down a medium-range jumper and get to the rim with strength. When he becomes more willing to throw his body around in the paint, Crump will be hard to stop without double coverage. Peterson hopes a session at Pete Newell's Big Man Camp during the summer helped in that regard.

Crump suffered a setback in June when he was punched out by former teammate and roommate Elgrace Wilborn. The unexpected blow shattered Crump's jaw and forced Peterson to kick Wilborn off the team. Though he had to take his meals through straw for a while, Crump didn't lose weight and stuck to a training schedule.

"He showed signs last year of being able to take over games," Peterson said. "He's got to be able to do that consistently for us. When he plays well, we play well."

Tennessee doesn't have much depth in the post, which means freshman Major Wingate will have to make major contributions early. The 6-10, 260-pound Wingate is from South Carolina, but played his senior season at North Gwinnett High School in Suwanee, Ga. He averaged 17 points, nine boards and three blocked shots and was generally considered among the nation's top 50 high school players. Like Watson, Wingate got some invaluable experience in the summer playing for the Global Select team in the Global Games.

Another post player who will have to contribute is 7-0 Boomer Herndon. Herndon (1.3 ppg, 1.8 rpg), a sophomore, played in just 12 games last season. Peterson wouldn't have minded red-shirting Herndon this year, but the dismissal of Wilborn made that impossible. Herndon has some skills, but has to elevate his game to be a factor in the SEC. He joined Crump at Newell's big man camp during the summer.

Two guards could well determine the fate of the Vols this season. If sophomores Stanley Asumnu and John Winchester play up to their promise, Tennessee's backcourt will be one of the quickest and most athletic in the league. Both the 6-5 Asumnu and the 6-3 Winchester played tentatively last season. Winchester (1.5 ppg, 0.5) never found his shooting touch, making just 22 percent of his field goals and 23 percent of his three-pointers.

Asumnu (1.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg) wasn't much better from the field, but he won two games for the Vols, one with a last-second tip-in at Ole Miss. Tennessee coaches love Asumnu's athleticism, but last season they were concerned that he played in a panicked state much of the time, as though he were afraid to make a mistake.

Jordan Howell, a 6-3 freshman, was a gift from SEC rival Georgia. Not that new coach Dennis Felton wanted to hand him over to the Vols, but when former Georgia coach Jim Harrick resigned under pressure, Howell asked out of the scholarship he signed in November, 2002. Felton released Howell and he was heavily re-recruited by SEC schools, including Alabama and Auburn, where his father played. Peterson, desperately in need of a shooter, convinced Howell he would fill that role quickly at Tennessee and signed him in June. Howell decided to take a medical red-shirt in early October and will sit out this year.

Dane Bradshaw, a 6-3 freshman, is a winner, having led White Station High School in Memphis to three state championships in his four seasons. Opinion seems to be mixed on Bradshaw, who at 215 pounds is a true point guard-an instinctive passer who elevates the play of his teammates. Some think Bradshaw, a Top 100 recruit in the opinion of some recruiting analysts, isn't cut out for the SEC. Peterson obviously isn't in that camp.

"The thing I like about him is that our program needed a winner and someone who's got leadership skills," Peterson said. "Three state titles says it all, but he's also a big, strong kid who can pass and get the ball to the rim. He just outworks you."

Junior Justin Albrecht (2.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg) didn't get much of a chance to show what he could do last year, injuring his foot after two games. The 6-6 Albrecht, who had transferred from junior college, didn't play another game and received a medical red-shirt. At his best, Albrecht is a blender type, a good passer and team player.

Peterson is also hoping he can get some contributions from 6-6 junior Lou Wright, a cousin of McFadgon and brother of NBA veteran Lorenzen Wright. Wright, from Memphis, originally signed with hometown Memphis but fell short of qualifying. He signed with Southwest Tennessee Community College and averaged 17 points and seven rebounds two years ago. He sat out last season while taking the necessary classes to graduate. The former Top 100 high school player didn't receive any scholarship offers, so he walked on at Tennessee.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT - B

BENCH/DEPTH - C+

FRONTCOURT - B

INTANGIBLES - C+

Peterson is hoping his team can take another step forward in his third season and return to the NCAA Tournament, where it was a regular from 1998 to 2001.

In order for that to happen, Tennessee has to get strong contributions from transfers McFadgon and Hendrix, find some depth at the post positions and hope at least two from among a group of young guards can step up alongside point man Watson and become a scoring threat.

Though he'd love to have another post player, Peterson likes the mix of this team.

"We've got good chemistry, the best we've had since I've been here," Peterson said. "We don't have to depend on one person, and we'll score more by committee. This team can be better defensively. We've got some plusses."

Perhaps, but not enough to overtake Kentucky or Florida in the SEC East. We'll call it third place if two players from the guard group that includes Asumnu, Winchester, Bradshaw and Howell are ready to make major contributions.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 327 Division I teams, order the 384-page "Bible" of college basketball, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com.

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