Chris Lofton is 4 of 12 from the arc. Which is a mixed bag. But at any point last year, 4 of 12 from Lofton, 4 of 14 for the game and only one trip to the free throw line would've meant the Vols were beat, and badly so against a game opponent like Western Kentucky.
But tonight, the Vols continued to show that they're more than good enough to overcome a bad night by Lofton, and that more and more this team is becoming so much more than "Lofton and..." When Tennessee wins and does so holding a lead for most of the game against a future March Madness squad, and you feel a little unsettled the whole time, that's what we call progress. And progress is what we'd call a team emerging, even if slowly, from two seasons of foundation and a limitless supply of talent.
JP Prince arrived and was a factor, slamming an oop early and finishing with 8 points and 6 boards. Duke Crews is out with a heart condition. Aside from Lofton not having his best game, Ramar Smith and Wayne Chism were way off - five points combined, something else that would've gotten you hammered last year. And instead, the Vols win 88-82.
Some of it is another solid effort from JaJuan Smith, with 19 points including a barrage in the opening minutes. More of it is the fact that the offense is revolving around Tyler Smith more and "let's get Lofton a look" less, which should, in turn, get Lofton more looks. Tyler responds with 16 points, 10 of 13 at the line. But the x-factor tonight?
Ladies and gentlemen, Brian Williams.
He's a big kid, but he played like a man tonight: 16 points, 14 boards, somebody get him some dinner. Williams wasn't just big on the stat sheet and in the paint, and he didn't just make smart basketball plays like saving a possession late by throwing a loose ball off a WKU player. He energized the guys he was on the floor with and the orange contingent at the Sommet Center. If you didn't have ESPNU or didn't stay up this late - or if you're like me, and you paid $5.20 on your DirecTV bill to get it for the rest of December - the press reports won't do justice to what he did tonight. Brian Williams was the difference in this game. Wasn't he getting ready to be redshirted?
The Vols aren't firing on all cylinders. But like the mighty Celtics (19-2, best record in the NBA, on pace to be the greatest team in NBA history, just so you know), they're so good that they can overcome off nights by more than one player. As this rotation becomes more and more together and Prince and Crews hopefully find their roles, you combine that with the fact that you take Bruce Pearl at his word as if he were God or Batman, and when he says that this team is going to improve, you like your odds. The Vols are 9-1 and should get to 10-1 against UNC-Asheville at home on Wednesday night.
Then we'll go to two critical Saturdays to bookend Christmas, at Xavier and in Seattle to battle Gonzaga. Last season, you weren't sure about this team and then they swept Memphis, Oklahoma State and Texas. This season, it looks better on paper but you're still not sure, but these next two (after Asheville) are h-u-g-e. If you fail to get one of them, you're going to have to count on beating Memphis to get a non-conference Top 25 win. If you get both of them, you've solidified yourself as a real title contender.
This team is getting better. Folks will be complaining about something after watching this one tonight, I know - you could never get comfortable. But this team is getting better. Lofton isn't going 4 of 12 every night. Ramar and Wayne aren't going to struggle like that. The 9-12 players that eventually make the rotation will be more than good. This team is getting better.
Brian Williams may ultimately find his way to the back of the rotation - or perhaps he'll stick, who knows - but he was fun to watch tonight. Surrounded by talent and experience superior to his own, he stood out above the rest and should be getting Bertelkamp's player of the game right about now. Maybe next week it'll be someone else. But with these individuals and as the whole continues to improve, the potential is extremely high. If you're uncomfortable with it tonight, that's a good thing. Look out. This team is getting better. And tonight, you didn't even see it coming.