KNOXVILLE – Let’s make an introduction first, and a reintroduction next …
The freshman, Wes Washpun, is a bubbly, affable chipmunk who apparently stood upon a phonebook when measured at 6 feet, 1 inch this offseason. He likes to navigate the court like a fighter pilot and has the energy of a jet. Washpun is a newcomer to Tennessee basketball.
The sophomore, Trae Golden, just turned 20, but has the chiseled, implacable face of a man going on 40. He can score in bunches, not necessarily with a jumper, and creates plays like, well, a playmaker. Golden served as a UT backup last year.
The point guards of the 2011-12 Tennessee Vols consist of a simpering freshman and a slightly experienced sophomore. At most high-major programs, these two characters would be given leeway and latitude.
In 2011-12, Tennessee isn’t most high-majors. Rebuilding doesn’t afford room for error.
“The point guard play,” said Vols coach Cuonzo Martin as Wednesday’s media day wrapped up, “will be a key.”
Earlier in the afternoon, he made the position sound like a keystone. The first-year Tennessee coach heaped reams of paperwork on the point guards’ desk.
There was this, “We want our point guard to be a really good rebounder in order for us to be successful.”
Then this, “For us, I want our point guard to score the ball, be a ball player.”
And then this, “In order for our defense to be really good, our point guard has to be a good on-the-ball defender.”
Oh and, of course, this, “We say all the time, the toughest guy on the team is the point guard because he has to guard that ball.”
The emphasis on the point guard position has echoed off the walls of UT basketball’s new regime. Washpun and Golden have been the linchpins of the team’s preseason workouts. When those “casual” workouts (players wore 10-pound vests during every minute) are ratcheted up to savage three-hour long engagements, the two will be dissected on every play.
Asked how they feel about the road traveled and the one ahead, the two keys said they are ready for the deadbolt.
“It’s been a tough process,” Golden said. “You can tell that Coach Martin wants a lot out of the point guards. I think that him and BP (Bruce Pearl) have two very different ideas of what they want from their point guards. (Martin) wants a lot out of me and wants me to take on a lot of new responsibilities, so I want to rise to the occasion.”
A year ago, the 6-foot-1 Golden averaged 2.2 assists per game in 13.3 minutes per contest with an admirable 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Despite being a freshman, he wasn’t reckless. His creativity helped more than it hurt. The same couldn’t be said for his jumper. Golden shot 29.3 percent from the field and 18.2 percent from the 3-point line while averaging 3.0 points per game.
Numerous UT assistants commented Wednesday on Golden’s insistence to improve on those numbers over the offseason. On the court, he practiced his jump shot. Within himself, though, he worked to develop something equally important. Golden knows that while the upperclassmen, namely senior Cameron Tatum, will enter leadership roles this year, no veteran point guard exists.
“I think the point guard is the quarterback, the leader, on the court,” said Golden, a native of Powder Springs, Ga. “After we lost to Michigan (NCAA tournament first round), I sat down and told myself that I was going to be one of the leaders of next year’s team. I want everyone to know I’m tough. I want them to know that I’m going to go to battle for them and I want them to go to battle for me. I’m going to give the other point guards hell all night long. I’m ready to play.”
That endearing aggression has only thrived in Martin’s defense-first, sacrifice-yourself style. That’s why Golden will likely be the starter against UNC Greensboro when the season tips on Nov. 11.
As for Washpun, Martin wants a point guard that can push the ball in transition and the freshman fits the bill. As a first-team Class 4A standout in Iowa, he averaged 18.0 points, 4.0 assists and 3.7 steals. An explosive athlete with bundles of moxie, Washpun will deliver a punch off the bench. Throughout the preseason, he and Golden have gradually gripped the steering wheel of Martin’s motion offense.
“The couple things we’ve done so far haven’t been excessive and it hasn’t been too hectic on the court,” Washpun said. “We’re doing simple things to get simple buckets.”
Yet that’s only a sliver of what they’re being asked of. Martin said it himself: Scoring, defense, rebounding – point guard, point guard, point guard.
Looks like the first-year coach better not lose his keys.