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July 28, 2009

Hopson ready for bigger role with Tennessee

When Bruce Pearl finally has the chance to watch his team in practice, the Tennessee coach should find a brand new Scotty Hopson.

At least those are the reports coming in from those who played with the rising sophomore during the summer. Pearl was been in Israel coaching the United States team to the gold medal in the Maccabiah Games, but in his absence, Hopson is starting to look like the McDonald's All American and top-five recruit who signed with the Volunteers in April 2008.

Hopson won't be the only sophomore with something to prove in 2009-10, but he will be one of the most watched. The 6-foot-7 guard was the fifth-ranked player in the Class of 2008. After early entries to the NBA draft, he'll be the highest-ranked player from that class still in college.

He felt the weight of those honors even before he stepped on the court at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"The day I signed to Tennessee, whenever I got to college, I knew I would have to perform, just being a highly touted player and highly ranked and all the accolades," Hopson said. "I knew there was some pressure on me, being a McDonald's All American, to score and produce well. I guess the pressure got to me a little bit."

Hopson admitted he was timid at times on the court, which led to an up-and-down season. He started for most of the year, averaging 9.2 points, the fourth-best total on the team.

While Tyler Smith, the Volunteers' top player, contemplated returning to school or going to the NBA draft over the summer, Hopson showed signs of becoming the next go-to player for the Vols.

He was the leading scorer in the Rocky Top League, an NCAA-approved summer basketball league in eastern Tennessee featuring current and former college players from the area. The competition was hardly SEC-caliber, but Hopson scored 37.1 points per game, ahead of current teammates Bobby Maze, Cameron Tatum and Wayne Chism (who all averaged more than 25 points themselves).

Former Tennessee player Dane Bradshaw, a teammate of Hopson's during the summer league, noticed an improvement in Hopson's shooting and his assertiveness on the court.

"Scotty Hopson is a guy you can tell wasn't sitting on his couch at home during the break," Bradshaw told the Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel. "I think he can emerge as a leader on the [Tennessee] team. But he won't emerge until he realizes he's the best player on the court, and a lot of that will have to do with whether Tyler [Smith] is coming back."

Smith elected to forgo the NBA draft, meaning Hopson could spend the season deferring to the veteran Smith again or becoming a potent one-two punch with the senior forward. The answer could determine Tennessee's season.

"As a team I felt we underachieved," Hopson said. "I know there's a lot more we can do. That's why this year I'm focused on getting myself better because that'll help my team out."

He won't be the only five-star prospect hoping to do that next season.

Of the 25 five-star prospects in the class, five declared for the NBA draft. The remaining five-star sophomores had mixed success. Wake Forest's Al-Farouq Aminu, Oklahoma's Willie Warren and West Virginia's Devin Ebanks were major contributors on NCAA tournament teams. North Carolina's Ed Davis and Connecticut's Kemba Walker performed well when called upon. Meanwhile, players like UCLA's J'mison Morgan and Miami's DeQuan Jones were non-factors for the respective teams.

Besides Hopson, here are five other five-star prospects from the Class of 2008 class who need to step up as sophomores:

DeQuan Jones, forward, Miami: The loss of sharpshooter Jack McClinton means it will be that much more important for Jones to start to play up to his five-star billing. As a freshman, he wasn't even close. As Miami aimed for a postseason bid in the final two months, Jones' minutes dwindled. In February and March, James averaged 6.3 minutes per game, making a grand total of four of 19 shots from the field.

Ater Majok, forward, Connecticut: The 13th-ranked player in the class wasn't cleared academically in January and still won't be able to play until after the fall semester. He's been able to practice, though, where he's earned rave reviews. The 6-10 forward declared for the NBA draft, pulled his name out and considered playing in Europe before finally settling on playing for Connecticut next season.

J'mison Morgan, center, UCLA: The last five-star in the 2008 class, Morgan was virtually invisible for UCLA, averaging 5.4 minutes per game. Along with four-star Drew Gordon, Morgan can't fade in the background this season. Thin at guard, the Bruins will rely on their frontcourt. If Morgan isn't one of those players, coach Ben Howland could turn to his five-man, all-forward signing class.

Chris Singleton, forward, Florida State: The Seminoles feel Singleton could be one of the best players in school history, but he used his freshman season to test out his surroundings. He started all but one game, averaging 8.1 points. With Toney Doulgas gone, Florida State could be more frontcourt-oriented if Solomon Alabi and Singleton continue to develop.

Tony Woods, center, Wake Forest: Al-Farouq Aminu was the only member of Wake Forest's five-star, three-man signing class to see major minutes. To compete in the ACC, Wake needs Woods to live up to his five-star billing. Woods played less than 11 minutes per game, averaging 3.2 points and 2.6 rebounds. Center Ty Walker was the third five-star, but his contributions were minimal last season.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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