Tennessee gave itself a chance to win its second Southeastern Conference game of the year at Georgia on Wednesday night, and for the third straight time, the Vols couldn’t seal the deal.
If there’s a common denominator in those three straight losses, it’s this: In losses at Mississippi State (14), at home to Kentucky (15) and at Georgia (20), Tennessee committed a total of 49 turnovers. That’s an average of 16.3 per game, far too many to beat a lot of mid-majors, let alone ranked power conference teams.
“You can't turn the ball over like that,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said after the Georgia game. “I told the guys I don't really have a lot of answers. When a team isn't really pressuring you on the perimeter and you turn the ball over 20 times, it’s just unacceptable."
The schedule gets no easier for Tennessee (8-10, 1-3 SEC). As if this team needed to play an elite opponent from out of conference, defending national champion Connecticut of the mighty Big East comes to Knoxville on Saturday. After that comes road trips to Vanderbilt and Kentucky sandwiched around a home game against Auburn.
What has to happen for the Vols to continue the progress they demonstrated in upsetting Florida in their first league game of the season?
Problems arise when starting point guard Trae Golden has to come out of games. Freshman Wes Washpun has been dropped from the rotation, so there isn’t a true backup point guard on the roster. Freshman Josh Richardson and senior Cameron Tatum have attempted to get the Vols into their offense when Golden is on the bench, with mixed results.
Still, many of the turnovers Tennessee committed against Georgia, as Martin alluded, were of the unforced variety. Martin knows the Vols have to slow down, quit forcing the action and value every possession. But can he put a player in the game who can ensure that happens, especially when Golden sits? His options are few.
What Martin wouldn’t give right now to have Josh Bone, the least discussed of the players lost from last year’s roster. The former walk-on rarely turned the ball over, played great man-to-man defense he learned under a Purdue system disciple — Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery — and could stick the occasional 3-pointer.
Martin will have to make do with what he has. That could mean Richardson is going to have to get comfortable at the point in a hurry. Junior Skylar McBee might be an option on the offensive end of the floor, but he’ll have a hard time containing opposing point guards on the other end.
The Georgia game provided another indication of what’s ahead for Tennessee. Count on freshman Jarnell Stokes becoming a major contributor. He started slowly offensively against the Bulldogs but wound up playing 26 minutes in just his second college game and making 5 of 9 shots and a free throw for 11 points. He tossed a neat post entry pass to Kenny Hall for a dunk and also contributed a blocked shot and a steal, which he took the length of the court for a layup, got fouled and converted the free throw.
Make no mistake the big man is ready to rumble. Tennessee wouldn’t have had a chance to win the Georgia game without him. Stokes, who took a 3-pointer and a 15-footer against the Bulldogs, is going to get a chance to utilize his entire offensive repertoire and be the recipient of his fair share of post touches, some off Golden’s penetration.
Tennessee — averaging 60 points a game in SEC play — has to conjure some points from somewhere, and Stokes has already demonstrated he’s capable of providing them, though he made his share of turnovers (three) in the Georgia game. But Stokes is still finding his way, and in order for him to be able to help, he’s going to have to get touches. He’ll see more of them if his teammates aren’t tossing the ball out of bounds, stepping on the baseline or getting picked by quick defenders.