Judging by the postings on various websites and message boards the last three days, Tennessee basketball fans are a little bummed out over the Vols’ home-court loss to Austin Peay last Saturday.
That’s understandable. The Austin Peay game represented a major meltdown. It was a perfect storm of bad decisions and bad defense that resulted in probably the most insufferable loss the Vols have been dealt since Western Carolina took them out on Dec. 17, 1993, the final season of the disastrous Wade Houston era.
Some fans are even comparing first-year Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin to Houston. One message board posting proclaimed that Vol basketball was back on the “trash heap” after six mostly glorious seasons under the departed Bruce Pearl.
For all those fans who think the program has suddenly plummeted to the dregs, there are a couple of things they should consider:
• Defense is an acquired taste. You think most high school basketball stars are tutored in the art of guarding someone, especially during the all-star and summer AAU circuit? Please.
Defensive highlights don’t get broadcast on SportsCenter. The Top Ten plays are reserved for dunks and 3-pointers. No mid-range pull-up jumpers (a lost art, by the way), no made free throws, no in-your-jersey man-to-man D.
Kids can’t be blamed for trying to emulate what they see on TV. That leaves college coaches with the unenviable task of trying to teach defense to freshmen. Martin played in a great defensive system at Purdue, and by all accounts, he’s worked overtime trying to pass what he knows on to this Tennessee team. But that takes time.
Once the Vols completely buy in, and frankly I’m surprised it’s taken them so long, they will instantly become much more competitive.
• It takes time to learn how to make good decisions, too. Consider the starting lineup Martin has used all season. Only Cameron Tatum has logged significant minutes at the college level. The others are basically freshmen, having been minimaly utilized in Pearl’s final season.
In particular, the spotlight has shone brightly on sophomore point guard Trae Golden, who may have cost the Vols a win over Memphis with his decision to attack the basket when his team held onto a four-point lead late in the game. Golden has suffered through some abysmal shooting nights, too — 3 of 19 against Memphis, 4 of 11 against Oakland, 1 of 9 against Austin Peay.
But you know what? Golden’s going to get better. He’s an instinctive passer, a good free-throw shooter and he can score — as long as he takes good shots. He’s going to learn how to make better decisions — when to pass versus when to shoot, when to turn down what seems like an open look but really isn’t the best shot available. A game like Austin Peay will teach him more than the one he had against UNC Greensboro, when he scored 29 points and handed out nine assists.
• Martin is going to have to roll with the players he’s got available. Which means that any drastic lineup alterations won’t be forthcoming. He’s already playing his best starting five. Martin’s only choice is to make his starters better, and then blend in the few bench players who can help.
Of the five-man freshman class Martin and his staff scrambled to sign last spring, 6-foot-6 swingman Josh Richardson is a keeper, a guy who can contribute in the SEC. Yemi Makanjuola, the 6-9, 244-pound center, is farther along at this stage of his career than Vanderbilt star Festus Ezeli, who didn’t know basketball terminology when he first landed in Nashville but, through hard work, has turned himself into an NBA draft pick. If Maknjuola works as hard, he’s got the same opportunity.
Throw in junior guard Skylar McBee, who’s rediscovered his jump shot under the patient tutelage of Martin and his staff, and there’s your rotation.
It’s also going to take time to build back the roster. Recruiting had slipped in Pearl’s last season, because obviously, coaches from other schools were using the NCAA disaster against Tennessee. Why would a player want to go to Knoxville when there was a chance Pearl would be fired? Sure enough, he was.
Tennessee may not make its seventh straight NCAA Tournament appearance when the year ends. Fans had better face facts. But instead of opining that the program has gone into the dumper, why not do something about it? The atmosphere at the Austin Peay game was dead. Fans have the power to help raise the level of this program simply by packing out Thompson-Boling Arena and making it a hellish place to play for the visiting team.
That will do more good for their beloved program than writing anonymous posts on message boards.