“There’s no time to get discouraged now. . Getting discouraged is out of the question.”
Those were the farsighted words Tennessee point guard Trae Golden left behind in Memphis on Wednesday night. The sophomore sees the road ahead in January. It’s cracked. Severe turns are pockmarked by potholes.
Avoiding discouragement could become as hard as winning games.
It begins Saturday with No. 13 Florida’s visit to Knoxville. Then a trip to No. 15 Mississippi State Thursday will be followed by a home date with No. 2 Kentucky. A road trip to Georgia then comes before a non-conference meeting with No. 8 Connecticut, the defending national champion. After that, a trip to Nashville to play preseason top 10 Vanderbilt is followed by a visit from Auburn (sweet reprieve!), but that matchup comes on the heels of a trip to Kentucky on Jan. 31.
The Vols may very well resemble a crumbled heap on the side of the road at month’s end. Golden cast aside the thought of discouragement infiltrating the Vols after a 69-51 loss to the rival Tigers at FedExForum. It might be wishful thinking. Tennessee’s contest at Memphis had the look and feel of a Southeastern Conference game. And when it was over, the Vols were clearly overmatched.
Remember when UT football, besieged by injuries, was forced to maneuver through a four-game stretch featuring Georgia, Alabama, LSU and South Carolina? Well, here comes the sequel. The next three opponents facing Tennessee basketball are a combined 39-6 and all ranked in the top 15. All told, the next seven opponents are 94-22. The worst record of the lot is Auburn’s 9-5 mark.
The Vols currently sit with a 7-7 record and an RPI of 275.
Kenpom.com predicts UT will go 1-6 over the remainder of January. As Missouri State head coach last season, first-year UT coach Cuonzo Martin led the Bears to an 8-2 record in January that included a pair of wins over Creighton and huge road victory at Witchita State. Missouri State was 17-5 as February began.
If most forecasts are accurate, the Vols will have an 8-13 record hanging around their neck when Georgia visits Thompson-Boling Arena on Feb. 4. Discouragement may be unavoidable.
Even if Tennessee plays beyond expectations, it will still be hard to muster three wins over the next three weeks. The talent gap is too wide in too many matchups. Even with the impending eligibility of Jarnell Stokes, the five-star recruit who is still awaiting clearance by the SEC office, UT doesn’t have the weapons to take down Florida, Kentucky, UConn, Mississippi State, so on, so forth.
As of now, Martin is simply looking for consistent, viable scoring options. Golden averages 14.8 points per game and was solid against Memphis (22 pts., 8 of 14 shooting), but even the team’s top offensive threat has fluctuated in productivity. Over a three-game stretch in mid-December, Golden averaged 4.2 points per game and shot 36.0 percent. In the last four games, he’s averaged 18.0 while shooting 59.6 percent.
Ever since a dominant 32-point performance in a Feb. 22 loss to Memphis at the Maui Invitational, Jeronne Maymon has been a riddle. In the nine games since UT returned from Hawaii, the 6-foot-7 junior forward has scored double figures in three games and averaged 8.8 points in the other five. He shoots 55 percent from the field, but has taken six or less shots in seven of the team’s 13 games against Division I opponents.
The rest of the Vols are equally erratic.
Senior Cameron Tatum, the team’s second leading scorer, scored three points over a combined 49 minutes in losses to Austin Peay and College of Charleston, then scored 17 against UNC Asheville the following game. Against Memphis, the senior converted two field goals in 28 minutes.
Skylar McBee has taken 99 shots this year, with 80 coming from 3-point distance. He ranks eighth in the SEC shooting 43.5 percent from deep, but has made two or fewer threes in seven games. UT is 2-5 in those contests.
Likewise, production from forwards Kenny Hall, Jordan McRae and Renaldo Woolridge seems to come and go like the tide. Remember McRae’s back-to-back 25-point games against Chaminade and Oakland in late November? The sophomore has now scored more than five points once in his last five games.
The numbers and the examples can go on and on, but here’s the point: Tennessee’s inconsistent play and team-wide inexperience, coupled with a new coaching style and heavy competition, offer little reason to believe that SEC play will result in anything other than head-on collisions and fender-benders.
That might be discouraging, but it’s reality.
So what is there to be encouraged about? Well, it’s only year one of Martin’s tenure, a prized recruit has already been secured and non-seniors account for more than 75 percent of the team’s production.
Be sure to remember that while traveling January’s unpaved road.