KNOXVILLE — It’s been a while since Tennessee’s basketball team had as easy a win against a good team as it did against Oakland on Monday night.
The Vols sucked all the drama out of this one before it was seven minutes old. Jordan McRae’s dunk off a neat pass from Skylar McBee gave Tennessee a 15-2 lead with 13:02 to play. The outcome was never in doubt after that as the Vols’ rolled to a 77-50 win.
Someone who didn’t attend the game might think Tennessee (4-1) did most of its damage on the offensive end, and in fact the Vols shot 54 percent from the floor in taking a 38-15 halftime lead. But offense was only a small part of the story.
“They played their tails off,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. “They played with great aggression. And they defended the living crap out of us. They defended us.”
Though only a handful of players were around in 2010 when the Grizzlies (2-5) came to Knoxville and handed Tennessee, then ranked No. 10 in the country, an 89-82 whipping, that loss still looms large. And if that weren’t enough to alert the Vols to the fact that Oakland—which has played in the NCAA tournament the last two years—is a rugged mid-major team, last year’s 89-81 loss at Oakland hammered the point home.
In that latter game, Oakland guard Reggie Hamilton, who has since departed, hung 35 points on a host of Vol defenders, but mostly point guard Trae Golden. The memory of that night hasn’t escaped Golden. Not that his inner circle would let him forget.
“I talked to one of my best friends back home,” Golden said. “He was like, ‘So ya’ll are gonna play Oakland? Is Reggie Hamilton still there?’ That kinda made me mad.”
Golden let off some steam on Monday night. He led the Vols with 18 points and seven assists, but just as important he helped key a defensive effort that was, in a word, suffocating. Not since holding UNC Asheville to 14 points in the first half of a game in November of 2009 has Tennessee been so stingy in the first 20 minutes. The Vols limited Oakland to 15.6 percent shooting from the floor in the first half and 28.6 overall.
It’s safe to say that the buy-in is complete. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin’s insistence on tough man-to-man D is rubbing off on his young charges. It would be hard not to. Under Martin, defense has become fun.
“For us, it kinda is,” Golden said. “That’s when coach Martin shows the most emotion. When we we stopped them on a shot clock (violation) tonight, you look over at coach Martin and that was the most emotion he showed the whole night. I threw a no look (pass) to Jarnell, coach Martin, he don’t care. But if you do it for 35 seconds and lock down 35 seconds, he starts screaming.
“That gets us into it. We know that’s what he wants. Y’all have been to our practices. You’ve seen what we do. It’s all defense. That’s just something we try to hang our hats on. And we’re getting better.”
This isn’t to suggest the Vols’ offense isn’t improving, too. Nowhere is that improvement more evident than in Golden, whose decision making was suspect at times last season but has tightened up considerably. Against Oakland, Golden did what great point guards do—driving the lane, drawing the defense and finding shooters, or evading defenders and getting all the way to the rim for easy layups. And when his defender laid back to prevent the drive, Golden knocked down 3-pointers (2 of 4).
Point guards can be evaluated with a couple of key statistics, but the most important one is assist-to-turnover ratio. Golden made just one turnover on Monday night. And for the season, he’s handed out 26 assists against just seven turnovers. That’s an off-the-charts 3.7-1.
“Trae’s done a good job,” Martin said. “We want Trae to score the ball, but also to run our offense, find shooters. He’s done a good job being patient, letting the offense come to him but also being aggressive when he needs to be aggressive and getting his big guys and his shooters the ball.”