KNOXVILLE -- It pains Bruce Pearl to publicly single out one player or one position as a big reason for his team's struggles.
The Tennessee men's basketball coach criticizes his players on the practice floor, often creatively, but he typically tones it down before commenting to reporters. So Pearl's pointed remarks this week about young shooting guards Scotty Hopson and Skylar McBee were a clear indication of frustration.
The 12th-ranked Volunteers (18-5, 6-3 Southeastern Conference) need more from their shooters, Pearl said, especially in games like tonight's at third-ranked Kentucky (23-1, 8-1).
"We've got to get more production out of our 2s," Pearl said moments after Tuesday night's 90-71 loss at Vanderbilt. "Skylar and Scotty have got to play better at that position. We need them to shoot better percentages, play better defense and be more productive with the minutes that they're getting."
Hopson and McBee, who by far spend more time than their teammates shooting after practice every day, said they understood their coach's message.
"He's absolutely right," McBee said.
"Coach Pearl knows what he's talking about. We need to do more for the team," Hopson added.
Hopson, a 6-foot-7 sophomore and former McDonald's All-American, has shown moments of sheer brilliance the past two seasons. But he's also shown his youth by disappearing at times. He scored just 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting in 26 minutes Tuesday night, but that looked great compared with McBee's 0-for-1 shooting in 19 minutes.
"As a 2 guard, your responsibility usually is to score and to make plays," said McBee, a freshman from the Knoxville area. "I can't really speak for Scotty. I just speak for myself, but I have to do more. Playing 19 minutes and not scoring, that can't happen. I have to do more to help this team.
"I have to do more to put us in position to win games."
Expectations on Hopson greatly exceed those placed on McBee. The Kentuckian is one of the most highly regarded players ever to sign with UT, and his role sharply increased when senior All-SEC forward Tyler Smith was dismissed from the program in January.
Defenses have keyed more on Hopson, and he admits he hasn't consistently adjusted.
"People are really keying in on me and really extending out on me," Hopson said. "I'm drawing two defenders a lot, and I'm having to make plays and kick the ball out to other people. Whenever the opportunities are presented to me, I try to take advantage of them the best I can.
"I've done a lot more slashing and just a lot more creating opportunities to score and just helping my shot more. Coach Pearl has really preached that to me -- just that if I want to be a scorer, I have to help out my shot more."
Hopson feels the frustration from inside and outside the program about his lack of consistent contributions.
As UT senior wing J.P. Prince said, "When Hop finally realizes how good he is, nobody's going to be able to stop him."
After the Vols stunned top-ranked Kansas last month, Pearl loudly asked them in the postgame locker room, "Can anybody stop Scotty Hopson from getting to the rim?"
"No!" the team responded in unison.
Point taken, Hopson said.
"Some of it I let go, and some of it I take in," he said. "What's positive, I definitely take in; and the criticism, I just look at it like people are seeing potential in me, and they know I can do it. But I just think, 'Let me go out and work on it, and hopefully it will come to me.' When the time is there, and opportunity is presented to me, I'm going to take advantage of it. I'm going to seize it."
"It's leading up to those points where it's time to be special. Big-time players make big plays in big games, and I know I can be a big-time player. It's coming to me. I know it's coming. I know it's time. Nobody wants it more than me. Nobody expects more out of me than I expect of myself."
Hopson, who surprisingly shunned Kentucky to sign with UT, will be public enemy No. 1 tonight. Last year in Rupp Arena, he overcame a slow start to score a team-high 14 points, but Tennessee lost 77-58.
"I know going into Kentucky, there'll be a lot of hatred from the fans and the people that are there, but I do try to block out the best that I can," Hopson said. "I just get into the mood, get into the game focused and try to stay with that.
"I'll just ignore the boos, ignore what all the fans are saying, ignore the posters in the stands and just stick to my game plan."
McBee has similar goals for the minutes he relieves Hopson.
"I think it'll definitely be a great experience, but you have to focus in on what you're trying to do," McBee said. "The ultimate goal is not just to go up there and play Kentucky. The goal is to go up there and beat Kentucky. And in order to do that, I've got stay focused and make sure I'm doing what I need to do to put us in the best position to win.
"I have confidence in our coach, I have confidence in our program, and most of all, I have confidence in every single one of the guys I play with. And I think they think the same thing about me. As long as we stay together and stay like a family, things will take care of themselves, and we're going to be OK."
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