By Eric L. Taylor
Contributor for Checkerboard Chatter
It has been said that "Two's company, and three's a crowd". While this may be true in some social settings, I find it to be a false statement when applied to the dynamics of a high performing, championship level basketball team. Basketball is a free flowing team game that has many one-on-one battles layered within. Balancing a team concept and individual greatness is a delicate act that when done properly can separate great teams from good ones. The history of the game (NCAA & NBA) is littered with tremendous teams that had the following foundation: two superstar players, one fringe star player and role guys who knew their various roles and performed them well. Having three studs that are each capable of carrying you on a given night is a luxury that allows more margin for error. For example, if your 2nd leading scorer has a poor night offensively, you may still be able to gut out a victory if your 3rd leading scorer elevates his already high level of play. Teams that can win the games when they're not firing on all cylinders have a much better chance of performing better in the postseason.
Here are just a few examples of "Big 3's" from NCAA teams past:
Duke (90's): Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley & Grant Hill
UNLV (90's): Greg Anthony, Larry Johnson & Stacey Augmon
UNC (80's): Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins & James Worthy
UF (00's): Al Horford, Joakim Noah & Corey Brewer
(Even though they didn't win the NCAA Title, the Kentucky Wildcats 09 - 10' Big 3 of Wall, Cousins & Bledsoe is a prime example of a recent Big 3 that had great success.)
Again, the list above is just naming a few; the list could go on and on. Moving onto the NBA, the Big 3 craze is the latest trend in a copy cat league. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen of the Boston Celtics have laid out a blueprint that teams are trying to mimic. It's not a coincidence that the Miami Heat now have their own Big 3 in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. This NBA trend is not just a recent phenomenon. Past NBA Big 3's (just a few) are listed below:
Bulls (90's): Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen & Horace Grant
Lakers (80's): Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & James Worthy
Celtics (80's): Larry Bird, Kevin McHale & Robert Parrish
Spurs (late 90's / early 00's): David Robinson, Tim Duncan & Sean Elliott
How does this topic relate to the Vols? In my opinion, the Vols must harness the power of the Big 3 in order to achieve postseason success in this year's SEC and NCAA Tournaments. With one regular season game left to play, the Vols are currently the only team in the SEC East that has only two players averaging in double figures. Scotty Hopson (17.8) and Tobias Harris (14.6) have clearly been the Volunteer's best offensive weapons this season. While both players have enjoyed strong seasons, each has struggled at various points of the year as well. Those games where one or both have struggled have been tough to win because the 3rd option hasn't been a reliable one this season. The Vols' third leading scorer is Cam Tatum at 9.4 ppg. He is only shooting 39.1% from the field, 66.7% from "the nail" (Jimmy Dykes) and 28.4% from three point land. Other players have had offensive flashes this season such as Melvin Goins (8.0 ppg) who netted a season high of 19 in the Vols' best victory of the season at Pittsburgh. Brian Williams (7.0 ppg) has had his moments as well such as his 18 point outburst in Oxford when the Vols thumped Ole Miss by a score of 74 - 58. While Tatum, Goins and Williams have turned in some stellar performances from time to time, the overall consistency has not been there. It seems that relying so much on Hopson and Harris on the offensive end gives the Vols virtually no room for error if one of them has an off night. If one of the "next 3" could take some of the pressure off of Hopson and Harris scoring wise, it would give the Vols more margin to work with and increase the likelihood of a postseason run.
In closing, I am in no way comparing a possible Big 3 of Hopson, Harris and Goins to some of the Hall of Fame Big 3's listed in this post. However, as Volunteer fans, we just have to look back to last year to see how far a lesser Big 3 and some well defined role guys can take the team. The threesome of Wayne Chism, JP Prince and Scotty Hopson proved to be a fantastic mix on the court as the Vols advanced to the Elite 8. Who will step up this year? Can this wildly inconsistent bunch of Volunteers propel their game to make a run? I predict it will only happen if a third player steps up to join Hopson and Harris to form a Big 3.