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December 21, 2006

Notebook: Volunteers finding inside presence

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As Tennessee freshman Duke Crews ran off the floor with his teammates following the Volunteers' 79-77 win over previously undefeated Oklahoma State (11-1) on Monday night in Nashville, Tenn., athletic director Mike Hamilton greeted the big man with a high five.

Just minutes later at the post-game press conference, coach Bruce Pearl shrugged his shoulders and said, "The kids overcame the coach," when asked about picking up a technical foul for yelling at officials. Crews, who was sitting beside Pearl, patted his coach on the back and flashed a broad smile.

Both scenes were fitting.

Crews played his best game of the year and combined with freshman Wayne Chism to give the Vols what they lacked all of last season: A legitimate low-post presence.

"I called both young centers out after our last game (76-58 win over Memphis at home) and they were everything we hoped for," said Pearl in his opening comments. "They delivered in a huge way by responding with tough catches and tough finishes."

Crews and Chism combined for 26 points and 15 rebounds. A career-high 17 points and nine boards came from Crews, who went 8-of-11 (72 percent) from the field despite battling cramps in the second half.

Crews' impact went beyond the stats. Many of the rookie's baskets came at particularly opportune times.

Crews scored the first points of the second half on a layup to pull the Vols (9-2) to 43-39. Three possessions later, Crews spun his 6-foot-7, 235-pound frame around in midair, caught an inbounds pass and laid it in while getting fouled. That basket cut the lead to 47-46.

Crews made another impressive play when he caught a pass on the left block, turned around in one swift motion and threw down a dunk with his right hand to make the score 65-64 Cowboys.

Then, with the Cowboys up by five and threatening to pull away for good, Crews made a play that fired up his team and got most of the 8,118 fans on their feet. Left untouched as players battled under the rim for a missed jumper, the big man came barreling down the lane, soared above everyone else and threw down an emphatic two-handed slam that left the basket shaking for several seconds.

They were the type of plays that former center Major Wingate never made and the type that give the undersized Vols hope that they will be able to match up better with bigger teams down the road.

No Need to Travel for Wins No. 879 and 880

Thanks to some smart scheduling, Bob Knight should tie and break the record for all-time Division I men's coaching victories at home.

With Knight needing just one more win to tie Dean Smith's record of 879 victories, his Texas Tech Red Raiders (9-3) are starting a four-game homestand. The first opponent is Bucknell (4-5) on Saturday. Next up is UNLV (10-2), New Mexico (8-2) and then Big 12 play begins with a visit from Oklahoma (6-3).

The Red Raiders head into the homestand with momentum. They have won their last three games, including a 71-56 triumph at Arkansas (8-2) last Saturday which turned out to be their most complete performance of the season.

Trivia Question: Which current Division I player has a chance to lead the nation in free-throw percentage for the fourth consecutive season, a feat that has never been accomplished? Hint: He doesn't play in a major conference, and his team upset a Big Ten squad last month. (Answer at the end of the column.)

Quick Hits

  • Kansas (9-2) plays host to Boston College (7-2) on Saturday, and its defensive game plan should center around keeping the ball out of the hands of Eagles' star Jared Dudley. The versatile senior is shooting the ball far better than in the past, making 61 percent (61-of-100) of his field-goal attempts. He entered this season shooting 48 percent for his career and never shot better than 50 percent for a single season.

  • You won't find Notre Dame's Joyce Center on many lists of the toughest places to play in college basketball. One coach who may have the Joyce Center on his list is Alabama coach Mark Gottfried. The Tide coach gave the arena and its fans a glowing review after watching his team get upset 99-85 in South Bend earlier this month. Gottfried said, "We will not see a better atmosphere in our league. It was electric. I think it will help our team (when SEC play starts.)"

  • UCLA coach Ben Howland may be forced to take one of his best interior players out of close games in the final minutes. Lorenzo Mata has nearly doubled his scoring and rebounding averages (going from 3.6 ppg to 6.7 ppg and 3.9 rpg to 7.0 ppg) since last season, but the junior center also gone from a bad free-throw shooter to absolutely horrific. Mata has made just nine of 34 attempts (26 percent) from the charity stripe.

  • A pair of sophomores came close to having triple-doubles on Tuesday. Georgia's Mike Mercer scored 21 points, pulled down eight rebounds and dished out eight assists in the Bulldogs' 93-77 win over Jacksonville. Providence's Geoff McDermottscored 11 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and handed out seven assists in the Friars' 77-68 win over Holy Cross.

    Wondering if your team can bounce back from a slow start? Want to know why your favorite player isn't higher in our power rankings?

    Rivals.com college basketball writer Andrew Skwara answers your questions every week in his Mailbag column. Click here to send him a question.
    Injury Report

  • Florida power forward Al Horford, one of the nation's top post players, remains questionable for Saturday's matchup between the fifth-ranked Gators (9-2) and No. 3 Ohio State (10-1) in Gainesville, Fla. Horford has missed the Gators' last two games with a sprained ankle. He leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 13.2 points and 8.2 boards a game.

  • Georgia guard Sundiata Gaines' status is uncertain for the Bulldogs' trip to rival Georgia Tech on Saturday. Gaines injured his right ankle against Jacksonville and said he is "day-to-day" after the game. He is leading the team in rebounding (5.4 rpg), assists (5.1 apg) and steals (3.5 spg).

  • Syracuse center Terrence Roberts missed all of the second half with a sprained left knee in Drexel's 84-79 upset over the Orange on Tuesday. Roberts is being further evaluated and no date has been set for his return.

  • Oklahoma State guard Obi Muonelo suffered a stress fracture in his leg last week and will likely miss the rest of the season.

    Quote of the Week

    "It sort of evens the playing field a little bit. We had lost three ACC games, but they were all on the road in hostile environments. Down here, it was just two teams playing with barely enough people in the crowd to start a fight." Appalachian State coach Houston Francher after watching his Mountaineers' pull off an 80-69 upset over Virginia in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday

    Answer to trivia question: Missouri State's Blake Ahearn. The senior shot 97 percent, 94 percent and 93 percent in each of his first three seasons. He is shooting 90 percent (36-of-40) from the free-throw line this season.

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