Two weeks ago, Tennessee looked like a program ready to take the NCAA Tournament by storm.
Picked by most preseason polls at around 20th in the nation, the prediction seemed appropriate: The Vols were losing documented leadership in the form of departing seniors Wayne Chism, J.P. Prince and Bobby Maze. Last year's squad reached its first-ever Elite Eight, but a crop of talented newcomers was about to enter Thompson-Boling Arena. No one knew what was next.
Early in the season, however, these Vols looked legit. Victories over No. 7 Villanova and No. 3 Pittsburgh propelled Tennessee into Top-5 discussion, a welcome feeling for a team that, despite the players lost, was looking like coach Bruce Pearl's most talented team in six season on Rocky Top.
But oh, how the mighty have fallen.
After thoroughly outplaying Pitt on Dec. 11, Tennessee hit some potholes: the Vols dropped three straight games to the likes of Oakland, Charlotte and USC. That's three losses to three unranked, albeit talented, opponents, two of which coming at home.
Thus, in nearly a week and a half, Tennessee has gone from Top-5 discussion to an unranked team with no direction.
For maybe the first time in the Pearl era, the main culprit is this team's offense. Defensively, with the likes of point guard Melvin Goins, Brian Williams and newcomers John Fields and Jeronne Maymon, UT has proved it can shut down opponents. Defense is becoming this team's bread-and-butter.
But the wheels of UT's halfcourt offense have fallen off. Freshman forward Tobias Harris has been the only consistent threat on offense, but even he's not a scorer; that's where junior Scotty Hopson ideally would step in.
But as with the case in Hopson's previous two years in Knoxville, the highly touted sharpshooter from Kentucky hasn't even flirted with consistency. The recruit meant to replace the irreplaceable Chris Lofton in UT's backcourt rocked Pitt for 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting, forcing Vol fans to think that maybe, just maybe Hopson had finally arrived, that UT's search for that go-to scorer was over.
But the excitement was premature. Over the last three contests--all losses--Hopson is shooting 8-of-31.
Perhaps he's not hardwired for clutch situations. Perhaps his metaphorical celing has been reached. Whatever the reason, this is the year Hopson has to be "the man." What's more, Harris can now be the Robin to Hopson's Batman, a sidekick necessary to get the job done.
This season, the Vols will go as far as Hopson takes them. When Pearl continues to throw rotations onto the floor comprised of Skyler McBee, Steven Pearl, Renaldo Woolridge and Fields--otherwise known as personified offensive ineptitude--someone has to step up. There isn't anybody else with the talent to carry the Vols night-in and night-out. Hopson's the guy, and if this team hopes to make noise in the NCAA Tournament come March, the junior must have a noticable effect on box scores throughout the season.