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March 27, 2008

Vols still making changes at point guard

» MORE: NCAA Tourney Central | Sweet 16 Viewer's Guide | Play Second Chance Tourney Pick'em

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Most teams have settled on a starting point guard by the time conference play starts in January. Tennessee still hasn't settled on a point guard and the Vols are in the Sweet 16.

So much for the critical component of point-guard play in the NCAA Tournament.

J.P. Prince is the latest through the revolving door for Bruce Pearl's team. He made his first start of the season Sunday in Birmingham, Ala., for the Vols' second-round East Regional game against Butler.

"The deal is this: I just thought that the point-guard play we were getting wasn't going to win a national championship," Pearl said after Tennessee slipped by Butler in overtime, 76-71. "So if we make the decision and it doesn't pay off and I'm sitting here in front of you and explaining why I made that choice and we lost the game, I could go to bed going, 'It's OK.' "

The Vols meet Louisville on Thursday in a regional semifinal. The third-seeded Cards dispatched 14th-seeded Boise State 79-61 in the first round, then blasted No. 6 seed Oklahoma 78-48 to arrive in Charlotte looking poised and ready for battle.

Tennessee has gotten excellent play up front from forwards Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism through the tournament. But point-guard play has been suspect.

In a 72-57 first-round victory over American, Jordan Howell, Ramar Smith and Prince combined for 12 points on 1-for-5 shooting, with five assists and four turnovers in a combined 48 minutes. Howell got the start despite the fact he has made only four of his past 40 3-point attempts.

"Jordan is getting great looks," Pearl said. "But you've got to make them, not just take them."

Consequently, Howell - who has made 16 starts this season - was the only player who didn't get off the Tennessee bench in the first half against Butler. He wound up playing a season-low five minutes and scored one point.

Prince had nine points on 4-for-5 shooting against the Bulldogs, and he added seven rebounds, five assists and a block. On the flipside, he committed six turnovers.

"I thought J.P. played well," Pearl said. "I thought he did a lot of good things, whether it be offensive rebounds (a game-high five, including one for a putback dunk) or taking charges or making plays. Our execution down the stretch was challenged because he's not … I mean, how about finding yourself in that situation for the first time as a point guard in the NCAA Tournament?"

Because of his size, length and athleticism, Prince is a much different animal at the point than the 6-3 Howell or the 6-2 Smith. Prince didn't look especially comfortable dribbling up top against Butler, but he definitely sees the floor well and is an effective - if not sometimes spectacular - passer.

"Tennessee is a great team with any of them on the floor," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "As far as Prince goes, obviously Prince is a tremendous athlete, a guy that brings a lot of energy, a guy that makes plays in transition, can make plays on second chances, can make plays off the drive."

He also takes some of the pressure off Smith, whom Pearl admits he's on "pretty hard." Smith scored four critical points in overtime against Butler. He also was on the floor for the entire overtime.

"I went with Ramar because I knew we were going to be in a close-the-game-out situation," Pearl said. "Even though we hadn't been getting great plays from Ramar, he's been in that situation before and he obviously delivered."

The point guards will need to play with confidence and poise against Louisville. The Cardinals almost assuredly will attack the Vols and pressure the ball for 94 feet, as they did in dismantling the Broncos and the Sooners. They have forced 34 turnovers through two games in the tournament.

Pearl probably would prefer to throw over and around the pressure rather than have any of his guards do too much on the dribble. Prince is expected to start, and Ramar Smith will figure prominently against Louisville as well. Howell probably is the odd man out for the time being.

"You're playing senior guards and the best teams in the nation now," Prince said. "I'll get better at it. I had a lot of turnovers (against Butler), just silly stuff. It comes with the good and the bad."

The Vols say it doesn't matter who starts, that they'll be ready.

"Their games are all different from each other, but when they're at the point, they know what they've got to do and we can read them," JaJuan Smith said. "We know how to play with all three, and we have just been working on that all season long getting prepared. I think Coach is going to put the better point guard on the floor for our opponent."

» MORE: NCAA Tourney Central | Sweet 16 Viewer's Guide | Play Second Chance Tourney Pick'em

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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