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December 15, 2009NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee's game Friday against overmatched Middle Tennessee may have been a snoozer, but it could end up typifying the Volunteers' point guard play this season.
Starter Bobby Maze scored 12 points in 22 minutes in the 75-54 rout, and backup Melvin Goins had six points and two steals in 17 minutes. But neither had an assist until midway through the second half.
Forward Tyler Smith, who leads the team in assists, led the Vols with five.
Maze and Goins struggled to set up scoring opportunities again Tuesday night. In the Vols' 77-58 win over Wyoming, Maze collected the duo's lone assist in a combined 41 minutes of play. Smith tallied six assists in his 28 minutes against the Cowboys.
Six weeks into the season, Tennessee is a top-10 team, ranked eighth in the coaches' poll and ninth in The Associated Press poll. Whether the Volunteers (8-1) stay there likely depends on the effectiveness of their duo at point guard.
"Any team starts with the guards, especially the point guard," Goins said. "As far as we go and the team goes, it starts with us with the defense and the ball pressure, and on the offensive end, keeping things under control and getting into our sets."
Look at the Tennessee starting five, and it's clear where the biggest question mark will be this season. Smith is a two-time All-SEC selection. Sophomore Scotty Hopson, a five-star prospect out of high school, is coming into his own at shooting guard. Forward Wayne Chism was an All-SEC second-teamer last season and a double-double threat every game. Swingman J.P. Prince, once the SEC's sixth man of the year, is a well-rounded player who does a lot of things well.
Maze and Goins? One is a former junior college All-American (Maze) and one is a former Mid-American Conference all-freshman honoree (Goins).
In this lineup, they don't need to be stars. But they must provide Tennessee with more consistent point guard play than the team received last season, which ended in a first-round loss in the NCAA tournament.
Maze has started every game this season, averaging 22.5 minutes. Goins averages 16.4 minutes.
"The chemistry has been really good in the sense that I think they are supporting one another," coach Bruce Pearl said. "They're not competing as much. They're both going to play the position.
"Bobby has improved tremendously defensively with his energy and his effectiveness. He's always been a good offensive player."
Goins, a junior college transfer, started at Ball State as a freshman before leaving for Mt. San Jacinto College in California. He is one of two newcomers for the Vols this season. While Maze is the better offensive player, Pearl expects Goins to be a defensive stopper off the bench.
"Melvin was a great addition to the team," Maze said. "He could start on just about every team we play against. He brings a lot of energy and gets to the basket. ? A lot of players would be upset [at the addition of a player at his position], but I'm kind of excited."
"It's a good complement," Goins said. "He has the chance to wear the guard down before I get in. I get to apply defensive pressure and use my defensive tactics to turn the ball over."
Pearl said he thinks Maze and Goins can be an effective tandem, but the duo has its faults. Neither is that proficient offensively and can have trouble getting into the lane. That weakness was evident against Purdue, the only ranked team on the Vols' schedule so far, in the Paradise Jam tournament.
On Tennessee's final possession against the Boilermakers, with the Vols trailing by one, Maze looked to penetrate. But instead of driving, he stayed on the perimeter and passed the ball to Chism, who missed badly on a 3-point attempt at the buzzer. Purdue won 73-72.
By January, Tennessee should find itself in more hotly contested games where it will need Maze and/or Goins to make some plays. The Vols face Kansas -- and All-America point guard Sherron Collins -- on Jan. 10. The SEC schedule begins four days later, with Auburn. In league play, the Vols' duo will go against - among others - Kentucky's John Wall, South Carolina's Devan Downey, Ole Miss' Chris Warren, Mississippi State's Dee Bost and Vanderbilt's Jermaine Beal.
"All I can say is the best position in the league is point guard," Pearl said.
The mystery for the Vols is where their duo fits into that mix. The answer likely will mean the difference between a two-, three- or even four-game stay in the NCAAs or another one-and-done appearance.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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