Tennessee's Cameron Tatum (23) drives past Auburn's Tay Waller (24) and Brendon Knox (30) for a second-half basket in Tennessee's 94-85 win in an NCAA college basketball game at the Southeastern Conference men's tournament in Tampa, Fla., March 14, 2009. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
KNOXVILLE -- With every Cameron Tatum drive to the rim, every Brian Williams rebound and every Melvin Goins steal, oach Bruce Pearl and his Tennessee basketball team become more confident of their depth heading into postseason play.
The 15th-ranked Volunteers (23-7), who dressed only six healthy scholarship players for a full month earlier this season, have every available hand back on deck heading into this week's Southeastern Conference tournament.
"We put ourselves in this position during the regular reason, and now we'll have to do this the hard way," said Tatum, who has averaged 11 points while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor in the past four games. "We're going to need everybody on the team to contribute to get that done, but we know we can do it.
"The reality is every guy might not contribute the same every game, but that's why depth is such an important factor for us, because we've got different options. We've got a bunch of guys who can step up big on any given night."
Tennessee isn't seen by many as a favorite, and not just because it hasn't hoisted an SEC tournament trophy in three decades. As opposed to top two SEC East finishers Kentucky and Vanderbilt, the Vols need four wins in four days to win the title. But they remain confident, thanks to the recent return of their strength in numbers.
"We've got 10 players who can match up with anybody," Williams, a big junior center from the Bronx, said after Tuesday's practice. "We feel like we can maintain with anybody in the SEC, even though we don't have a bye like we usually do."
UT again has at least one competent backup at all five positions. Pearl and Co. will wince if All-SEC senior forward Wayne Chism gets in foul trouble, but Williams has left the Vols with more appropriately sized options.
"Getting everybody -- well, almost everybody -- back has been great," Chism said. "Brian's been huge inside, opening up holes for everybody all over the place. Cam and Mel are doing their thing on the outside, too. We've got enough guys back now that we know we can roll with anybody."
Chemistry hasn't seemed to be a problem, despite several rotation adjustments that relegated once-prominent players to the bench. Sophomore forward Renaldo Woolridge, freshman guard Skylar McBee and junior guard Josh Bone, who played pivotal roles in UT's upset win over top-ranked Kansas, have left the main rotation.
Woolridge, who started and played 24 minutes in the Vols' Feb. 13 loss at Kentucky, has played four combined minutes in the past seven games. He never took off his pregame shooting shirt in five of those games.
McBee, who played double-digit minutes in 25 of UT's first 26 games, hasn't played more than eight minutes in the past four. He played three minutes in the loss at Florida and the win over Arkansas, and he sat a full 40 minutes for the first time all season in Saturday's blowout win at Mississippi State.
Bone, a crucial component of UT's comeback, overtime win over Ole Miss on Jan. 16, hasn't played in the past seven games. He's played just five combined minutes in the past 11 games.
"Obviously, every basketball player wants to be out there on the floor with their team and making big plays in big games, but Coach Pearl has reasons for the things he does," Woolridge said recently. "He's doing what he thinks he needs to do to put our team in the best position to win games, and we all want what's best for the team, so you just keep working hard and stay ready in case he calls your number again."
Pearl said he won't hesitate to do just that, if situations dictate it.
"I think the team appreciates that we don't beat a lot of the teams we beat without Josh Bone -- who's not even playing now -- or Renaldo's four 3s against Kansas," Pearl said. "I think the team feels good about the team, and all the different contributions."
The Vols recognize they're not talented enough to impose their will on other highly ranked teams, but they claim that recent roster replenishments have left them an ability to win in just about any style of play.
"It's definitely big that we've proven we can win games in the 50s or 60s, but we can still run and shoot with anybody and win in the 80s or 90s," Williams said. "Some teams can only win one way or the other, but we can do both, and that could take us a long way in both tournaments. And everybody on this team, from the coaches to the players, is all on the same page.
"I feel like there's no reason we shouldn't have a good run."