As the clock ticked down to zero against Florida, University of Tennessee guard Scotty Hopson picked up his dribble and launched the basketball high into the Thompson-Boling Arena rafters.
Just a half-minute before, the Vols had been down by a point, 59-60. With 24.2 seconds to go, coach Bruce Pearl called a timeout and drew up a play. Many expected the ball to go to team leader Wayne Chism, a big man (6'9") who also shoots well from the outside. But Pearl called on 6'7" sophomore guard Scotty Hopson.
"I said to him, ‘Win this one for us,'" says Pearl, "and I drew it up for him."
"Yes, sir," Hopson replied.
Point guard Melvin Goins whispered in Hopson's ear, "Big players make big shots."
As Pearl had drawn on his coaching board, Hopson started close to the basket, popped out past a screen, got the ball near the 3-point line, made a jump shot over the outstretched arms of a defender and put the Vols up 61-60 with just 15 seconds to go. When Florida's last shot hit the back of the rim and bounced out with 2.5 seconds to go, Hopson grabbed the rebound and dribbled out the last seconds.
"I felt it was the biggest shot of my college career," said Hopson afterward.
It was an important game-winner against a major SEC rival, but Hopson's shot was also a watershed for him and for the team.
Hopson, from Hopkinsville, Ky., was the first McDonald's All-American to sign with the Vols since the Clinton administration. Coming from Kentucky, he was hailed as the successor to Chris Lofton, another Bluegrass State native, who had spoiled Vol fans with his unearthly ability to drain 3-pointers in improbable situations and become synonymous with radio commentator Bert Bertlekamp's exclamation, "Money!" In some ways, Lofton's legacy cast a shadow over Hopson's freshman season, even as Hopson led the team in 3-pointers (46) and made the SEC All-Freshman team.
This season, even as Hopson has led the team in scoring, averaging 13 points per game—followed closely by Chism's 12.7—UT fans wondered, "When is Scotty going to truly step up and take charge?"
"When we have discussions of the most improved sophomores in the SEC," says Pearl, "Scotty doesn't ever get brought up in that conversation, and I think he should be."
With his toss into the rafters, Hopson gave a signal that his time had come.
The Florida victory was also an example of a scrappy Vols team coming through in the clutch despite an improbable soap opera of distractions that had beset UT athletics since the fall—from the arrest for armed robbery by several young football players, to the importune departure of bratty coach Lane Kiffin (sparking an impromptu semi-riot and mattress burnings by students) to the New Year's Day traffic stop of four hoops players resulting in senior forward Tyler Smith being dismissed from the team and three other players being suspended.
Despite it all, heading into tournament season, the 13th-ranked Vols—led by Chism, Hopson, and a gang of unlikely heroes—have won a surprising 21 games, including upsets of then No. 1-ranked Kansas and No. 2-ranked Kentucky. The Vols have established themselves as hard-nosed defenders who work together to find a way to win, as they did last Saturday in their 74-65 win over the Wildcats. In that game Hopson nailed a crucial 3-point shot with 38 seconds remaining to give the Vols a 70-65 lead.
In Pearl's four seasons, the Vols have not won an SEC tournament or made it past the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament (though three years ago they lost to eventual-champion Ohio State by just a point). On the face of it, this current band of overachievers are not the odds makers' pick to make either breakthrough. But at the subatomic level, particles have been interacting to defy probabilities. This is a team of heart-warming camaraderie, inspired and comforted by Chism's regal leadership. And Hopson is one of the key factors that could spark a March Madness chain reaction.
"When Scotty realizes how good he really is, nobody will be able to stop him," says senior guard J.P. Prince, who scored a team-high 20 points in the win over Kentucky, including four straight free throws in the last 25 seconds.
The Salad-Roll Salad
Hopson grew up the youngest of a brother and two sisters in Hopkinsville, about 15 miles north of Fort Campbell along U.S. Highway Alt 41. "Folks around here raise tobacco, corn, soybeans," says Hopson's mother, Jeanette, who plays keyboard at the Church of Jesus in Hopkinsville and the Eastview Baptist Church in Madisonville. She also played at the team banquet last year and happily drives the 3½ hours to Knoxville for games.
"Hopkinsville has about 30,000 people in the whole town and Knoxville has 30,000 just on campus," says Hopson. "So it's a lot smaller there."
Still, notes Jeanette, Hopkinsville has produced NBA players Greg Buckner, Chris Whitney, and William "Bird" Averitt, along with Artose Pinner of the NFL.
Jeanette divorced Scotty's father, James, when she was pregnant with Scotty. James, who died of cancer in October, was never a part of Scotty's life.
"People always tell me he's an amenable kid, very respectful," says Jeanette. "I get that all the time. That's the way I raised him." She has fond memories of trips to Ryan's Steakhouse: "He'd fix himself a salad, and he'd open up his roll and put the salad on the roll and call it his salad-roll salad."
"Scotty has no tattoos, just like me," wrote his UT teammate Renaldo Woolridge in a UTsports.com story entitled "My Twin."
"Although we grew up in different environments," wrote Woolridge, son of the L.A. Lakers' Orlando, "we had similarities in lifestyle. My second mother, Ms. Hopson (who makes the best cornbread I have EVER had), raised Scotty in the church and instilled good morals in him. She taught him to be a good kid who stays out of harm's way."
Scotty went to the University Heights High School, a private school of about 300 students, and got noticed by college scouts playing on an AAU team out of Nashville.
In the 2008 recruiting class he was ranked by scouting services as high as No. 5 in the country. "There were so many schools calling that he couldn't concentrate on his work in school," Jeanette recalls. "Mississippi State had recruited him the hardest, and so he said yes. Later on, we took a second look at it. He'd always liked Tennessee, and we took a trip down to Knoxville. He watched practice, and I saw the look in his eye and I knew it was over. That was it."
Still, Kentucky coach Billy Gillespie was scheduled to come to the Hopsons' home the next evening. Pearl asked Scotty what he thought, and Scotty said he needed to pray on it. After taking a moment with Jeanette and Larry Marshall, a New Jersey AAU coach and a Hopkinsville native who had hosted Hopson at a summer camp and become a mentor during the recruiting process, Hopson decided to commit.
"I told Bruce that I know how he gets excited and paints his chest and all of that," said Jeanette. "But I didn't want him tearing his shirt off when Scotty committed."
But Pearl is an emotional man.
"Pearl and his staff started crying," says Marshall. "If he could have, he would have painted his chest, run out through the streets and gotten arrested for being buck naked."
"I felt like I could have more exposure here than most places," says Hopson, "I love the culture here, too; it's such a family on the team. The opportunity for education was also important for me, going into the School of Communications."
Like many youngest children, Hopson is good with words. "Going back to early in his high school career, he has always been a ‘good interview,'" wrote Rob Lewis of Volquest.com. "Intelligent and well spoken, he's capable of tossing out the sought-after sound bite. But he's equally capable of giving more thoughtful answers than you'll see from the average teenager. That kind of intelligence can lead to more introspection than is healthy for a teenager, especially when your public performances are being picked apart by thousands of fans/critics."
In Hopson's freshman season, he did fine. He was fourth on the team in points per game (9.2), led the team in 3-point percentage (.357) and 3-point shots (46), and made the SEC All-Freshman team. But he didn't quite look like the No. 5 freshman in the country when it came to aggressively driving to the basket. "I knew there was some pressure on me," Hopson said to David Fox of Rivals.com, "being a McDonald's All-American, to score and produce well. I guess the pressure got to me a little bit."
Overall, this was a transition year for Tennessee, with elder statesmen like Lofton gone and a crop of young players coming in. Because the newbies had neither the Dane Bradshaw-like conditioning nor the defensive technique needed to execute Pearl's trademark full-court-press, fast-break style of play, he opted for a slower, half-court game. "It was the first time we underachieved," says Pearl.
The summer blew in a wind of promise and a No.-10 pre-season ranking, as All-SEC senior forward Tyler Smith, the Vols' best player, evaluated his prospects in the NBA draft and decided to return for his senior season to polish his shooting skills and go for a conference title.
When he announced he was returning to UT, Smith wore a snappy cardigan. In fact, he'd been dressing and acting well all summer at the NBA combines, he told Luke Winn of SI.com: "Coach Pearl said, ‘If they're going to invest millions in you, they want to see you look the part—nice and professional.'"
For his part, Hopson spent the summer working hard to improve his shot, reducing the arc under the tutelage of UT greats Allan Houston and Dale Ellis. This paid off, as Hopson came out of the gate making about 75 percent of his shots in the opening games, but Pearl was still challenging him to get more aggressive—to call for the ball more, to drive to the basket, and draw more fouls.
On the afternoon of New Year's Eve, the Vols got a big win over in-state rival Memphis.
Then came the New Year's morning massacre.
Doing 70 mph at 11 a.m. on Interstate 40 in a rented black Dodge Charger, four players—Smith, Goins, guard Cameron Tatum, and center Brian Williams—saw the party lights. Inside the car, the cops found two handguns—one with its serial numbers shaved off—and a baggie of marijuana.
The four players were suspended from the team. In the ensuing days, Smith took responsibility for the guns and was dismissed. Now forever yoked in fans' minds to those guns, Smith is a person of more substance than the January 1 mug shot might hint. He has teardrop tattoos near his eyes to remember his father, Billy, who died a year ago after a long bout with cancer. Originally from Pulaski, Tenn., Smith had signed with Buzz Peterson, but tried to get UT to release him when Pearl took Peterson's place (Pearl wouldn't). He went to Hargrave Military Academy for a year and then Iowa, then transferred back to be near Billy as he waged his battle for his life.
But his sudden absence left the Vols' game plan in a lurch.
The Underdogs Have Their Day
So, stripped of four top players, in a scenario worthy of a movie script, the Vols found a new identity—as pesky underdogs—going 6-2 in January and upending Kansas, the No. 1 team in the nation.
The heroes included walk-on Steven Pearl, the coach's son from West High, who has become a defensive pest and prolific pickpocket, snatching four steals against Florida. A beanpole as a freshman, young Pearl has become the strongest member of the team, benching 350 pounds.
Woolridge—who recently recorded a hip-hop love song entitled, "Never Leave You Like Kiffin"—made four 3-pointers against Kansas. Kenny Hall, a skinny 6'8" freshman post player from Chattanooga, went up against the Jayhawks' 6'11" All-American Cole Aldrich and held him to just three field goals.
Josh Bone—a walk-on transfer guard from Brentwood Academy by way of Southern Illinois—played defense in a 71-69 OT win over Ole Miss that made Vols fans ask, "Who is that guy?"
J.P. Prince, a talented guard who transferred from Arizona three years ago, started using his 6'7" height and disproportionate wingspan to make steals and start fast breaks. "At any moment J.P. chooses to," said Steven Pearl, "he can be the best player on the court."
Point guard Bobby Maze found his groove as a canny floor general and a solid defender. A native of Washington, D.C., Maze wears No. 3, and with his cornrows, generous complement of tattoos, and gritty, hustling style of play, he bears enough of a resemblance to his friend from D.C. days, NBA star Allen "The Answer" Iverson, that Vols fans dubbed him Maze "The Solution" when he arrived from Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College in 2008.
The most lovable underdog of all was freshman walk-on Skylar McBee, from Rutledge, Tenn., who nailed a miracle 3-pointer to seal the 76-68 upset of Kansas. "For him to play on the floor for Tennessee continues to be a dream come true," says his father, Doug.
Before the game, Doug McBee had visited the hospital room of Greg Lauderdale, 49, who had been in an auto accident in early December and near death for 28 days. Doug McBee has taken Lauderdale, who has Down Syndrome, to every Rutledge (now Grainger County) High basketball game for 28 years. "The McBees are the salt of the earth," says Ray Huffaker, Lauderdale's brother-in-law.
Bruce Pearl sees the spunky play of his unexpected heroes as "appreciation for the opportunity to be out there. They've made a commitment to defense and a commitment to getting rebounds, and we've had a recognition of roles, go to our strengths and stay away from our weaknesses. We're not as talented offensively as we were last year, not as gifted, don't shoot particularly well, so we guard and rebound."
Presiding over them all is Chism, the big man who can shoot 3s, who took over the mantle of team leader like the Lion King, with a beneficent smile on his face and a determination to win games. He is the leader on the floor, grabbing 6.9 rebounds and scoring 12.7 point a game, and fighting through injuries to keep the Vols in close games. In practice, if Pearl calls a freshman out, or if someone is down, Chism goes over and offers a suggestion for improvement or advice.
Through the surprising 6-2 run in January, Hopson hadn't quite written his section in the improbable movie script—until Florida, when Pearl said, "Win this for us."
"That's the first time Coach has said that to me," says Hopson. "I'm glad he put pressure on my shoulders. I took a dribble and pulled back and got a look at the rim and I shot it. It's great, it gives me confidence. Maybe if we are in another situation Coach Pearl will give me confidence to knock it down."
It's almost as if Hopson, the ever-respectful last born, has been waiting for permission to take the team on his shoulders.
"He's picking it up on every end of the floor, defense and offense," Chism says. "Scotty is growing up really fast."
"Scotty and Wayne are our one-two punch offensively," Pearl says. "Scotty is playing with more confidence. He's still making great progress and getting better. He has the skills and tools and athleticism. I'd like to see him work hard to get open more and get better looks. I think you can see him doing things, both taking the ball to the basket as well as his three-point shooting percentages. You want him to do both. He needs to be able to do both."
"Maybe early in an offensive possession you're looking to drive, later in the [shot] clock you're looking to shoot. Sometimes in transition you take whatever the defense gives you, but I want Scotty to play with freedom, I want him to have a green light to attack and to be aggressive. He's got a real good understanding of what his good shots are and what they aren't."
The Madness of March
Goins, the back-up point guard, and the other two prodigal sons—guard Cameron Tatum and Brian Williams, the 6-foot-10 center from the Bronx, N.Y., best known for having lost 100 pounds in his last two years of high—were welcomed back from exile. Goins, who is known to spend two hours at night practicing his shooting, has worked his way into the starting lineup.
"When you're denied the opportunity to play," says Pearl, "you appreciate the opportunity to play."
In a movie script, those three would gain redemption, the underdogs would make their plays, and Hopson would find his true voice in a successful run—perhaps past the Sweet 16—in the NCAA tournament.
"I encourage Scotty to get better looks," Pearl says. "I encourage him to work harder to get open. I encourage him to set screens more, to space more, to cut harder. We'll try to get him as many looks, too, through play calling. If he gets open more, then I encourage him to shoot more, but if he doesn't get open more, he can't shoot more."
In a game last week at Florida, Pearl tried to spark Hopson by dropping him from the starting lineup for the first time this season. "I wanted a greater sense of urgency from him," Pearl says, and Hopson responded by scoring a season-high 20 points in a 75-62 loss. "Coach talked to me about getting fired up," he said afterward, "and when I do I get to the rim and make plays off the ball."
"I'm just going to continue to keep making plays," Hopson says. "As far as when the game's on the line, if Coach puts me in the position to make the shot and I have the ball in my hand I'll step up and do the best I can to make a shot."
Additional reporting by Erin Exum and Patrick Gipson.