KNOXVILLE — Like many times in the past, Cameron Tatum will play a basketball game at Thompson-Boling Arena this afternoon.
The sellout crowd will be loud. The stakes will be high.
To think it will be like any other game the senior wing has played in his career at Tennessee, though, would be wrong.
“It’s been different across the board,” Tatum said of his final season at UT. “New coaching staff, new players you’ve got to play with, just everything. It almost kind of felt like I was a freshman all over again. I understand that we had a lot of young guys on the team that I had to show the way and show the right way to lead a program and do the right things on and off the court.
“That’s what Coach [Cuonzo] Martin wanted me to do, and that’s what I’m trying to stick to.”
Tatum will play the final home game of his roller-coaster five-year UT career when the Volunteers host Vanderbilt with SEC tournament seeding and postseason hopes on the line. It’s a familiar setting for Tatum, who has started every game this season.
“He’s just showed a great level of toughness and resiliency and fight in him, especially some of the road games he’s had as a player,” Martin said. “The way he’s bounced back in the last two road games, it’s great for him as a senior.”
Tatum scored just five points last weekend at South Carolina, but he added nine rebounds and six assists in a display of his hidden value. Wednesday night at LSU, the 6-foot-7 Lithonia, Ga., resident made two crucial overtime baskets -- a 3-pointer from the corner on the Vols’ opening possession and a running hook shot later with UT up one. Those solid outings came after he’d scored 12 points total in UT’s other six SEC road games, including three scoreless performances.
The SEC is a bit of a mess heading into the regular season’s final weekend. Top-ranked Kentucky has clinched the league title and top seed in next week’s conference tournament in New Orleans, while South Carolina is assured the 12th seed. Everything in between is still up for grabs, and there conceivably could be four-way ties for second and sixth. For Tennessee, which was picked 11th in a preseason poll by the league’s coaches, the scenarios are fairly straightforward:
• Tennessee can clinch the No. 2 seed with a win against Vanderbilt today and a Kentucky win at Florida on Sunday. The SEC tiebreaker procedure follows this order: winning percentage among tied teams, head-to-head results and record against first place, then second place and on down the standings. The Vols win any three- or four-team tiebreaker that includes Florida due to UT’s sweep of the Gators.
• Tennessee is the No. 3 seed if it beats Vanderbilt, Florida upsets Kentucky and Alabama loses today at Ole Miss. Like the Vols, Alabama is 9-6 in the league, but the Crimson Tide lost to Florida and Vanderbilt, which hurts them in any multi-team tie.
• Tennessee is the No. 5 seed if it beats Vanderbilt and both Florida and Alabama win. In a multi-team tie with Alabama and Vanderbilt, UT would have the lowest winning percentage because it won just one of three games against those two teams. Alabama would be 1-1 and Vanderbilt would be 2-1.
• Tennessee is the No. 5 seed if it loses to Vanderbilt. The Vols are two games clear of LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, which are all tied at 7-9.
“He’s had a lot of value, especially for me, because I’m in a position where I kind of help him with the whole leadership thing,” said sophomore point guard Trae Golden. “He’s helped me in so many ways. He’s a calming force out there on the court. Cam is a huge part of our team.”
The sense of urgency for every player goes up this time of year, but it’s different for seniors Tatum and Renaldo Woolridge, who are playing to extend their collegiate careers.
“I think I’ve always played with that, even though it might not show up in the scoring column,” Tatum said. “I think I’ve always played like that out there defensive making stops, playing hard every time I was out there. Now it’s more important for us as a team to do that so we can try to make this late push into the NCAA tournament.”
If the Vols can complete the unlikely run to that point, Tatum would have been to college basketball’s biggest stage each year of his career. From his arrest as part of in the infamous traffic stop on New Year’s Day in 2010 and the firing of former coach Bruce at the end of a tumultuous 2011 season to the Vols’ run to the 2010 Elite Eight, Tatum has seen the heights and depths of UT basketball. This season — with a new coach, new team, new system and UT’s late-season surge — has had all of those ups and downs.
“It’s meant a lot that the guys never really got down,” Tatum said. “Everybody stayed the course; everybody continued to get better; everybody continued to have confidence in ourselves and each other and the coaching staff and what they have planned out for us for each and every opponent.
“I just appreciate every guy for, like I said, sticking to the script and continuing to play hard and never giving up.”
Tatum himself could have given up any number of times — when he had to watch the Vols beat Kansas and rip off five wins without him following his arrest as a sophomore; when his shot went away for the final month of a difficult junior year; when a new coaching staff showed up.
But much like his teammates, Tatum stayed the course this season despite some of his on-court struggles, and it could pay off in the form of a flourishing end to his career.
“It was tough out of the gates, but he’s also seen the results of his hard work and being consistent in his approach,” Martin said. “I think he’s done a good job lately of not putting a gauge on how many shots he makes or takes. I think [Wednesday] night was the first time he let his guard down and just played. Whether he made mistakes or not, he didn’t worry about it; he wasn’t pressing about it and just played basketball.”
Tatum will do that again today. But it’ll be different.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...