On those rare occasions that University of Tennessee sports fans turn their attention from football coach Lane Kiffin to their men's basketball program, their discussions usually revolve around three individuals: Bruce Pearl, Tyler Smith and Scotty Hopson.
And judging from the buzz at Saturday's football victory over Vanderbilt, if a fourth hoops Vol is mentioned it's likely to be star recruit Tobias Harris, who cast his lot with the Big Orange for the 2010-11 season on Thursday.
There's nothing wrong with getting excited about that quartet. Pearl's a terrific coach and salesman. Smith should again draw serious consideration for All-Southeastern Conference, if not the league's player of the year. Hopson should yet become the Vols' best NBA performer since Allan Houston. Harris is no worse than the second best recruit of the Pearl era, either equal to or just behind Hopson.
But the team's most valuable player is none of the above. As he proved again in Sunday night's 57-53 victory over DePaul in the semifinals of the Paradise Jam Tournament in the Virgin Islands, senior post player Wayne Chism is the one Vol that Pearl can't do without.
It was Chism, after all, who hit the key 3-pointer that turned a shaky 50-49 lead over the Blue Demons into a more comfortable 53-49 edge that the Vols never relinquished. It was also Chism who scored seven of his 13 points in the game's final five minutes, when no one else on the No. 10 Big Orange -- including Smith -- could do much of anything right.
So because of Chism the Vols survived and advanced into tonight's championship game against th Purdue-St. Joseph's winner. Because of Chism, the Vol remain undefeated (4-0). Because of Chism, UT should again be in the hunt for the SEC East title, despite the presence of Kentucky.
This isn't to say that Chism is always crucial to the Vols' success. Heading into the DePaul game he was just fifth in scoring (9.7 points), first in rebounds (6.3) and second in blocked shots.
He can go for fairly long periods of time without anybody noticing his good work, at least in part because Smith and Hopson are so hard to miss.
But good as the Vols looked in their first three victories over Austin Peay (83-54), UNC Asheville (124-49) and East Carolina (105-66), those weren't the kind of slugfests they're likely to see in the SEC. Or in the final of the Paradise Jam.
No, those games are much more likely to mirror Sunday night against DePaul, which slowed the pace of the game, stared down UT on the glass and kept defenders close enough to the Vols' perimeter shooters -- especially Hopson -- to know which brand of toothpaste they use.
So this wasn't going to be pretty, just pretty nasty, which is when the Chism is usually at his best.
"I believe Wayne's the best post defender in the country," Pearl loves to say. "I haven't seen a player yet that he can't guard."
Often left unsaid is how difficult the 6-foot-9, 246-pound Chism is to guard, since he can hit 3-pointers, turnaround jumpers from the baseline and jump hooks, as well as crashing the glass and running the floor.
This isn't to say that these Vols aren't good everywhere. They may or may not outshine Kentucky to win the league, but they are almost certainly going to remain a top 10 team all season if they remain healthy and happy.
As former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Mack McCarthy noted after watching his East Carolina Pirates get run out of the Virgin Islands by the Vols, "They certainly wore us down. They don't lose much when they go to their bench."
And they are deep, so much so that 10 players were averaging at least 10 minutes a contest through the first three wins.
But Depaul wasn't one of those games. It was a grinder. It called for maturity and experience, something Chism has more of in Pearl's system than any other Vol.
"We've got a long way to go," Pearl said seconds after the game ended.
But at least the presence of Chism gives UT a player capable of carrying them there when the going gets tough.