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November 26, 2008

Maze appears to be answer at point guard

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. A quick glance at Tennessee point guard Bobby Maze seems to explain instantly why Volunteers fans began calling him "The Solution" a nickname that has stuck on message boards soon after he signed in May.

Maze bears an uncanny resemblance to NBA star Allen Iverson, who long has been known as "The Answer." In addition, they are similar in size (Iverson is listed at 6 feet, 180 pounds; Maze at 6-2, 185), and both wear No. 3. And like Iverson, Maze wears cornrows and has tattoos crawling up his arms and neck.

Iverson and Maze are friends, and their physical characteristics are so similar that Iverson can pass Maze off as himself.

"When we are together, somebody will come up and ask for his autograph, and he'll say, 'No, I'm not Allen; he is' and then point to me," said Maze, a native of Washington, D.C. "They believe it every time."

Maze's new nickname has a dual meaning: The Iverson lookalike is viewed as the solution to Tennessee's problems.

The idea that Tennessee, which opens play against Siena in the Old Spice Classic on Thursday, has problems likely seems ridiculous to most programs. The Vols have won 55 games and been to back-to-back Sweet 16s in the past two seasons, but erratic play at point guard has held them back. Since four-year starter C.J. Watson's eligibility ended in 2005-06, they've struggled to find a steady ballhandler and a good decision-maker to run their offense.

Ramar Smith, who was shuffled in and out of the starting point guard job last season, was kicked off the team for unspecified reasons in May. It was no coincidence that Maze signed with the Vols five days later.

Maze, who played his freshman season at Oklahoma, had emerged as one of the nation's top junior college prospects at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. Hutchinson coach Ryan Swanson worked with Vols head man Bruce Pearl at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Though Maze initially had committed to Maryland, he said it became apparent Tennessee was the right place for him.

"I've been put in a great position," Maze said. "I'm on a top-20 team and I'm surrounded by a great team with Tyler Smith, J.P. Prince, Wayne Chism and Scotty Hopson, and I'm playing for a great coach. Everything happens for a reason and I'm so thankful to be here."

Three games into the season, his new teammates are thankful Maze is on their side. Maze has 19 assists and only three turnovers, giving him a sparkling 6.3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. The Vols have opened the season in impressive fashion, rolling to 39- and 27-point routs of Tennessee-Martin and Chattanooga, each of whom is expected to be among the top teams in their conferences, and a 10-point win over Middle Tennessee State - the preseason favorite in the Sun Belt.

Maze was the definition of poise in the Vols' 76-66 win at Middle Tennessee State. While the rest of the team combined for 16 turnovers, Maze didn't make any in his first road game with the Vols. He was 5-for-6 from the free-throw line in the final 2 minutes to seal the outcome.

"You saw why we call him 'The Solution,' " Prince said. "He stepped up and did his job. He's been exactly what we need."

Pearl raved about his new floor general in the postgame news conference, offering particular praise for handling the pressure of speedy Blue Raiders point guard Nigel Johnson.

"[Maze] was unbelievable," Pearl said. "To go on the road and to step up and hit those free throws. He wanted the ball in his hands. He had a tough matchup. Johnson is so quick, so to not have a turnover was huge."

Unlike Ramar Smith, Maze is a pass-first point who would rather create shots for teammates than take them. That is an ideal fit for the ultra-talented Vols, whose roster is overflowing with scoring options. Seven Vols are averaging at least 9.3 points.

"He's been doing what we've been looking for out of him," Tyler Smith said. "Having that true point guard has helped a lot."

Maze can score when needed and averages 9.3 points. Extremely quick and armed with a great handle, his signature move is a crossover hey, given his resemblance to Iverson, is that a surprise? and he used it three times to get into the lane and hit tough floaters over Middle Tennessee defenders.

"I can play every game differently," Maze said. "I'm doing whatever is needed for the team to win."

Maze also can be a disruptive force on defense, which is vital in Pearl's "controlled chaos" system that revolves around constant full-court pressure. He leads the Vols with six steals.

Maze credits his poise and ability to hit clutch free throws in a hostile atmosphere to his one season in the Big 12.

"My experience has helped prepare me for these situations," Maze said. "I got exposed to road games at Oklahoma and at the junior college level. That had a lot to do with building my confidence. I haven't seen any of the other SEC arenas, but I played at Oklahoma State and I can't imagine a louder or tougher place."

Maze's lone trip to Oklahoma State's Gallagher-Iba Arena on Jan. 22, 2007, was nightmarish. In 10 minutes of action, Maze had more fouls (three) than points (two) and committed four turnovers as the Sooners fell 66-61.

Maze battled through a foot injury that season and proved to be a steady contributor for the Sooners, averaging 5.6 points and 2.1 assists. Maze started five of the final six games, but soon after the season ended, Sooners coach Jeff Capel announced that he and Maze were parting ways.

"This decision is best for Bobby and for our team," Capel said in a statement. "I appreciate Bobby's efforts this past season and certainly wish him well in the future."

Maze won't say what exactly caused the split, but spending the 2007-08 season in the junior college ranks certainly offered him plenty of motivation to improve his game.

Maze played on the same AAU teams with Michael Beasley, Kevin Durant and Ty Lawson. "Kevin, Ty and Beasley are some of my best friends," Maze said. "We talk all the time.

"They've all been saying, 'This is your turn.' "

Nobody is hoping that proves to be the case more than Tennessee's players, coaches and fans.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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