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January 12, 2007
Tennessee freshmen learning on the job
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Every ticket to a Tennessee basketball game should include the following warning:
Don't leave the arena until the final horn sounds.
Tennessee has staged a second-half comeback in five of its last six games while producing more drama than an episode of "Grey's Anatomy."
The Volunteers beat Oklahoma State on a Dane Bradshaw tip-in with 1.9 seconds remaining. They rallied from a 17-point deficit to knock off Texas in overtime and lost to Vanderbilt on a tip-in at the buzzer.
Don't be surprised if another frantic finish takes place Saturday when the 16th-ranked Vols (13-3) visit No. 5 Ohio State (13-3) in a matchup that features two of the nation's most highly touted freshman classes.
Pardon the Volunteers if they'd like a break from all this excitement. They're growing tired of having to rally time and time again.
"That's something we've got to do less of," Tennessee freshman forward Duke Crews said. "We need to stop digging ourselves such a big hole and trying to climb out of it."
Consider it a product of Tennessee's youth.
The Vols will face an equally young team Saturday.
The difference between the two teams is that Ohio State already has faced some major tests away from home. The Buckeyes' three losses have come in road games with Final Four contenders North Carolina, Florida and Wisconsin.
Tennessee has played on an opposing team's home floor just twice all season. The Vols won 77-67 at Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 27 and lost 82-81 at Vanderbilt on Wednesday.
Even in the Vanderbilt game, the sellout crowd included enough Tennessee fans that the chants of "Defense" were audible when the Commodores had the ball in critical situations.
The loss to Vanderbilt at least gave the Vols an idea of what to expect as they get ready to tackle a tough second-half schedule. Tennessee plays five of its next seven games on the road in a stretch that starts at Ohio State and also includes trips to Kentucky and Florida.
"I know what I've got to do now," Smith said. "I know how crazy (road) crowds can get, and I know what I've got to do to calm them down."
The loss to Vanderbilt put a spotlight on all of the Vols' strengths and weaknesses.
Smith scored 17 points to help the Vols turn an 11-point, second-half deficit into a three-point lead. The former five-star prospect has averaged 14 points per game with a 3.6 assist-to-turnover ratio in his last five contests.
Crews made a dunk with 4.7 seconds remaining to put Tennessee ahead. The 6-foot-7 freshman has overcome his relative lack of height to emerge as the Vols' leading rebounder.
"They stepped up big for us," Tennessee junior guard Chris Lofton said. "Ramar and Duke played well down the stretch.''
And Lofton certainly did his part.
The 6-2 junior continued to solidify his reputation as college basketball's premier shooter by going 6-of-7 from 3-point range at Vanderbilt. Lofton is shooting 48 percent from beyond the arc this season and leads the Southeastern Conference with 22.6 points per game.
But the Vols still lost the game because they got outrebounded and allowed Shan Foster to get free for a winning tip-in.
That continued a discouraging trend for Tennessee, which ranks ninth in the SEC in rebound margin and last in field-goal percentage defense. The Vols' last three foes have all shot at least 50 percent against them.
Those numbers don't bode well for Tennessee's chances against Ohio State, which leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage. While Ohio State features the 7-foot Oden, Tennessee doesn't have anyone taller than 6-9 on its roster.
"North Carolina, Florida and Wisconsin (the three teams to beat Ohio State) were three of the biggest teams in the country with depth and very large front lines. Tennessee has the smallest and youngest front line in the SEC. When we go against mid-major teams, we're smaller. It's obviously going to be our greatest challenge so far this season."
Crews and Chism face a particularly large challenge Saturday. Both already have endured plenty of ups and downs in their first college season.
Chism is averaging 8.6 points per game, but he has scored in double figures just once in his last eight contests. A frustrated Chism briefly left the bench during the Vanderbilt game because of an asthma attack.
Perhaps a confrontation with Oden – an old AAU rival – could help the 6-9 freshman end his slump. Chism cemented his status as one of the top big-man prospects in the country by effectively guarding Oden while helping his team win the 2005 Real Deal on the Hill tournament.
Crews has made a quicker adjustment to the college game.
The 6-7 freshman has averaged 13.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in his last six outings. He displayed his trademark tenacity against Vanderbilt by making a go-ahead dunk despite losing a shoe in the process.
"He's undersized a bit but has the heart of a lion," Lofton said. "He's tough and doesn't ever give up."
The latter statement also could describe Lofton.
His ability to make shots from anywhere on the floor compensates for Tennessee's lack of height and has helped make the Vols arguably the most exciting team in the nation.
Lofton sank a 30-footer over 6-9 forward Kevin Durant with 18 seconds left in regulation to help force overtime in the victory over Texas. He outdid himself Wednesday by making a 40-footer just before halftime.
"Any shot for Chris Lofton is a good shot," Pearl said.
As long as Lofton is playing, the Vols always have a good shot to win – no matter how far they're behind or how many freshmen are on the floor with him.