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KNOXVILLE - The stat sheet showed Tennessee freshman guard Scotty Hopson topping his personal best scoring game by one point in the Vols' 81-76 victory over Mississippi State on Wednesday night.

The biggest UT signee since Allan Houston nearly two decades ago, Hopson scored 21 against the Bulldogs to best the 20 he totaled on Florida 26 days earlier.

But the points wasn't what most impressed UT reserve center Brian Williams.

"Did you see him on the glass?" asked Williams. "He got six rebounds, five on defense. When he's crashing the boards like that it makes us a lot better on defense. We need his points. And we tell him every chance we get to be more aggressive on offense. We even tell him in study hall. But we also need him to rebound and defend, and he's really starting to be great in those areas, too."

Every elite athlete improves at his own pace.

Hopson was rumored to be a one-and-done in November, headed off to NBA riches after one winter with the Big Orange. When he scored 17 points in 19 minutes against Chattanooga in the season-opener, that talk only grew louder.

But then Hopson started playing more like most freshmen than the most talked about freshman of coach Bruce Pearl's four seasons in K-town.

He scored five points against UT-Martin. He totaled two against Marquette. He scored one against Memphis and two at Arkansas.

"It took a long time for Scotty to realize how good he can be, how good we need him to be," said point guard Bobby Maze.

"He's a great kid. It can be midnight and I'll say, 'Scotty, we need to go shoot, and he'll go. He's a hard, hard worker. But he also came in looking at this as Tyler's (Smith) team and Wayne's (Chism) team. It's been hard to get him to be aggressive with the ball out there."

Not against State, however. Perhaps especially since State was the team that Hopson committed to before changing his mind early in his senior season.

"I know a lot of those guys," said Hopson afterward. "So there was a little talking before the game. It was a little different than other games. But once we started, it was all business."

Hopson's scoring line looked like business as usual in the first half: six points in 14 minutes.

But in the second period he hit 3 of 5 3-pointers and 4 of 6 free throws to finish with 21 points.

"We've finally convinced Scotty to be more aggressive on offense," said Pearl. "His mindset is becoming, 'We really can't win unless I play like this.' That became Chris Lofton's mindset when he was here, and I think Scotty's beginning to feel that way now."

Hopson admits to feeling, "a lot more comfortable. Guys are telling me to shoot the ball now. We just have to build on this. All the downfalls, all the losses, all the negativity we've had to deal with this season. It's been really embarrassing."

Some might say the crowd was embarrassing against the Bulldogs. Despite being just a game off the lead in the SEC East, the Vols were cheered on by an official crowd of but 19,137 - their second smallest in league play - and it looked a lot smaller than that.

Given a 9 p.m. tip-off on a week night, perhaps such relative apathy was understandable from the season-ticket crowd.

But that didn't explain all those empty seats in the Rocky Top Rowdies student section behind the home team's basket.

And there's the problem with the Vols this winter, regardless of where the season concludes, in the NCAA Tournament or NIT. This team has lost that loving feeling with its fans.

Blame it on the three double-digit conference losses to date - including the last two at Ole Miss and Kentucky. Blame it on a temporary malaise that has engulfed both the football program and Lady Vols hoops, delivering quite possibly the most unsatisfactory year from the school's three moneymakers ever.

You could even blame it on the economy.

But all that electricity that Pearl generated his first three winters is clearly missing, replaced by the kind of apathy so often seen during predecessor Buzz Peterson's final two or three seasons.

This isn't to say they won't come back next year. The Big Orange Nation might even return for the regular-season finale against Alabama, especially if the East title unexpectedly remains in play.

But Pearl and his team have perhaps also learned a valuable lesson this season. Fans understand effort and execution far more than the players and coaches sometimes think. Far too often this season these Vols have been oddly short on each, barely playing defense and settling for uncertain 3-pointers on offense.

Blessed with arguably the best talent of the Pearl era, such deficiencies haven't been enough to totally sink the season. UT remains a likely NCAA team, if only because its ambitious schedule currently ranks as the toughest nationally.

And if Hopson keeps playing the way he did against State, the Vols might even become a tough tourney out.

"All the guys were saying I needed to be ready to tonight," said Hopson.

And every other night from this point forward.

E-mail Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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