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THERE WERE nights when Bobby Maze would ride the team bus at Hutchinson ( Kans.) Community College, wheels spinning in his head. "Things gotta get better," he'd say to himself. "Things gotta get easier." It wasn't that he was languishing on the court; far from it. Maze, a 6'2" point guard who had been dismissed from Oklahoma after clashing with coach Jeff Capel his freshman year, would be named a 2007--08 NJCAA All-America. The problem was that glaring J in the award's name. "Watching the whole season of college basketball on ESPN was tough," Maze says. "I'd go into this small house after practice with nothing to do. I was just so angry."
These days? Not so much. Since arriving in Knoxville last spring, Maze quite literally has been singing a different tune. In June he recorded a freestyle rap song, a thankful (and expletive-free) ode to his new teammates that he posted on YouTube. (Sample lyric: "And you can't get me out of my rhythm/At the five, holler at my man Wayne Chism.") "It was a spur-of-the-moment thing," says Maze. "I'd been dreaming of being in a situation like this."
The only one who might be more excited about Maze's arrival is Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl, who will lean heavily on the transfer to settle a backcourt in transition. Last year's star shooting guard, Chris Lofton, graduated and is playing professionally in Europe; last year's point guard, Ramar Smith, was dismissed from the team in May; freshman Daniel West, who was seen as a potential replacement for Smith, has yet to receive academic clearance; and junior guard J.P. Prince, who might have been in the mix handling the ball, suffered a shoulder injury in late October that will keep him out for a month. "We're a guards program, and we would have loved to have some more [of the] backcourt return," Pearl admits. "And you can't replace Chris Lofton, the best shooter in the SEC. But I think we're very fortunate."
Indeed, the talent level is still the conference's best. Back is junior Wooden Award finalist Tyler Smith, who led the team in assists last year as a forward. The wildly athletic Scotty Hopson, a McDonald's All-American, will start at the two.
It's Maze, though, who'll need to run the show. Tracked by Pearl's staff ever since he left Norman, Maze is confident he'll fit in better here than at Oklahoma, and not just because he thinks he's matured: His coach at Hutchinson, Ryan Swanson, had been Pearl's assistant at Wisconsin- Milwaukee and runs the same "flex" offense as his mentor. Which means for Maze, there's every indication that this year's rides will be much smoother.