KNOXVILLE - Cameron Tatum spent Friday morning in Thompson-Boling Arena, the same place Tennessee's fifth-year senior guard has been for countless hours of basketball practice and games.
This time, though, there were no shooting drills or post-practice conditioning, and no opponent was anywhere to be found.
Tatum traded his headband and No. 23 jersey for a cap and gown and walked across the stage at UT's graduation ceremony, where he was handed his diploma for earning his degree in Africana Studies.
"It's a great accomplishment, and I'm making my family proud for doing this," he said Wednesday. "Getting a degree from the University of Tennessee can take you a long way, and that's something nobody can ever take from you. You have so many people that are willing to look out for you and so many great alumni out there that you'd be a fool not to get your degree from here."
Tatum hopes to add to his celebratory time today when he returns to the arena floor when the Volunteers host Austin Peay.
UT's "old man" spent a year at The Patterson School in North Carolina after four years at Tucker High School in Georgia. Tatum has seen all the ups and downs with the Vols' program the last five years, from the school's first Elite Eight in 2010 to a forgettable season last year, when Bruce Pearl's NCAA troubles overshadowed a talented team that underachieved and flamed out in the NCAA tournament's first round.
There have been individual challenges for Tatum as well. He played just seven games as a redshirt freshman and was arrested along with teammates Tyler Smith, Melvin Goins and Brian Williams following a traffic stop on New Year's Day nearly two years ago. Tatum was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm and having an open container of alcohol, but eventually Smith pleaded guilty for possession of a gun with an altered serial number and was dismissed.
Tatum ended up with a speeding ticket and a four-game suspension that included the Vols' memorable upset of top-ranked Kansas.
His junior season was a roller coaster as well. After not scoring in a loss at Arkansas, Tatum poured in 22, though his shot went ice cold and he scored in double figures just once in UT's last 11 games.
"Everything that I've been through the last five years that I've been here, it just makes this feeling even sweeter," Tatum said. "There were definitely some times I was sitting in my dorm room just thinking that I really came here to go to school and play basketball, and a couple of roadblocks came up. I had the encouragement of my family and my friends that really stuck by me and kept giving that extra push to keep going."
First-year coach Cuonzo Martin has said many times he didn't understand the importance of a college education when he was a young player at Purdue. He opened his Wednesday meeting with the media by congratulating Tatum for completing his pursuit of a degree.
"I know a lot of times when you are involved with sports at a high level," Martin said, "we somewhat take that for granted. I think that is understood, but not many guys get their degree and that is not their focus. I think he has done a good job of making that his commitment."
One of the few Vols who's been through the grind of a season and seen pressure moments in pressure games, Tatum had to rediscover his confidence after last season while learning and adjusting to a new coaching staff. Martin noted Tatum's willingness to buy what he's trying to sell.
"That's why you see results in him," Martin said. "He is playing with a level of confidence, just feeling good about himself. He's playing hard, and he's accepted the role on the defensive side of the ball, really being a defensive stopper. That's a good sign to see for a senior."
Tatum is averaging almost 12 points in seven games this season, and his shooting is much better than last season from the field (37.5 up to 46 percent) and from 3-point range (27.2 to 46.4). The skinny, 6-foot-7 Tatum grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds last week against Pittsburgh. He said it's just the latest development in how his role has changed.
"I think my first couple of years I was just strictly a spot-up shooter that could have that ability to drive and slash and score at times," he said. "Now I have the role of begin that vocal leader, leading example, playing hard all the time, scoring inside and out, rebounding, finding other players and making plays for other people as well."
As for his life after college hoops, Tatum, who also earned a minor in communications, hopes he can go into coaching or mentoring.
"Some of the experiences that I've been through," he said. "I've tried to talk to young kids about making the right choices and not going down some of the paths that I went through and making sure they don't have to through those heartaches and pains and things like that."