As a former high school All-American with an NBA body and Lottery-pick potential, Scotty Hopson was supposed to be Tennessee’s top scorer and take on a leadership role. Next year.
But when UT head coach Bruce Pearl dismissed All-SEC senior wing Tyler Smith from the team in January following Smith’s arrest on misdemeanor gun and drug charges — an incident from which three other players were suspended — Hopson had to step up. Two days after Smith was dismissed, the sophomore scored 17 points to lead the Volunteers in an upset win over No. 1-ranked Kansas.
Hopson, a 6-7 two-guard from Hopkinsville, Ky., is Tennessee’s leading scorer at 13.1 points per game, hitting 47 percent from the field and 40 percent beyond the arc. He has helped keep his squad among the nation’s best amidst the internal strife, as the 12th-ranked Vols are 18-5 (6-3 SEC) going into Saturday’s game at No. 3 Kentucky.
After yesterday’s practice, I talked to Hopson about his season, his game, and his past:
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Dime: To somebody who may not have seen Tennessee play, describe your team.
Scotty Hopson: We’re definitely a team that plays with intensity, that gets up and down the floor. We don’t have the depth we had earlier in the season, but we’re aggressive and we’ve got athletic guys who can make plays. Our identity is defense and rebounding and turning teams over.
Dime: You guys are right about where most people predicted you’d be, around the Top 10 despite some unexpected issues. How would you analyze the season so far?
SH: I think we’ve lived up to our expectations. We’ve overcome a lot, but we know only something special can come out of what we’ve been through this season. That being said, we’re just pushing to get better and better.
Dime: How has the Tyler Smith situation impacted the team?
SH: It definitely made players mature. It’s been a maturation process. Guys came into their roles, you know, from the walk-ons up to the top guys. We have some guys that went from playing 3-4 minutes a game to playing 18-20 minutes a game, and they’ve been effective. It’s tough, but Tyler is still our friend, our teammate and our brother.
Dime: With Tyler gone, the perception was that you didn’t have that go-to No. 1 guy anymore. Who’s been stepping up to fill that role, or has it been a collective thing?
SH: I think everybody has picked it up in their individual game, and it’s helped our team as a whole. Wayne Chism stepped up and is making plays; I’m doing the best I can; J.P. Prince is doing good; Bobby Maze has been efficient at the point guard spot. I think everybody really has stepped up.
Dime: What’s your role in the system?
SH: I’m the two-guard. Coach puts me out there to make plays and get buckets. That’s what I do, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.
Dime: Big game at Kentucky coming up. What have you seen from them, and how do you guys match up?
SH: I mean, they’re a talented team with some talented freshmen. They’re a great team. We’re gonna just come out and stick to our game plan; play aggressive, strong defense and go for the win.
Dime: In November you beat UNC-Asheville by 75 points. When you’re on the court during a blowout like that, do you even realize how wide the margin is as it’s happening?
SH: I mean, we were just playing great on all cylinders. We were all playing efficient, and we’re all talented players. So every five guys we put in, we were going at ’em. That’s what we try to do against anybody. Guys were just making shots, and then we looked up and the score was what it was.
Dime: You hit the game-winner against Florida a couple weeks ago. Talk about that play.
SH: In the timeout, Coach came to the bench and said, “Scotty, win this game for us.” I was like, “Coach, I got you. I’ma knock it down.” The play was for Wayne to be a decoy, and for me to get the ball on the wing for a wide-open shot. It didn’t work out that way, so I just got the ball and tried to create my own shot. My man overplayed me and I went for the step-back. Coach always preaches, “Hand down, man down,” and his hands were down.
Dime: It seems like Coach Pearl keeps things loose with his players. What’s the locker-room atmosphere like?
SH: Oh man, Coach is always doing funny stuff, but most of the time he’s laughing at our guys. This is the funniest team I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve never laughed so much in my life. I love these guys; they’re like my brothers.
Dime: You were on campus during the whole Lane Kiffin drama. What was it like during that, and what was your take on the story?
SH: People were definitely riled up. It was, like, commotion everywhere — the fans were angry and they felt betrayed. I just looked at the situation, like, you gotta do what’s best for you, and Coach Kiffin felt that’s what was best for him and his family. People were sad, but now they’re excited about getting a new coach and a good recruiting class coming in. We’re all looking forward to football season.
Dime: You dealt with a similar thing in high school, when you de-committed from Mississippi State right before Signing Day. What is it like being on that end of the criticism?
SH: I look at it, like, no matter how good you try to do, you can’t please everyone. I knew some people were gonna be upset, but I had to make the best decision for me. That’s what the coaches at Mississippi State told me the whole time: Do what was best for me. At the end of the day, coming to Tennessee was a better opportunity for me.
Dime: How far can Tennessee go this year?
SH: I think we can definitely go to the Final Four and maybe win a national championship. We’ve got something special with this basketball team. If our veteran guys keep stepping up and the rest of us are being accountable and making good plays, we could be in the Final Four. The sky’s the limit for this team.
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