Now the real fun begins for Tennessee’s basketball team.
Having waded through a fairly demanding non-conference schedule at 8-4, the Vols are neither as good as some expected nor as bad as those “Bring Back Bruce Pearl,” posters on message boards proclaim. In fact, the second edition of Tennessee basketball under coach Cuonzo Martin is much improved over the first at the same time a year ago—just check the RPI ratings—but yet this is a team that has been fairly lightly regarded by the national media.
With the Vols’ first Southeastern Conference game set at home against Ole Miss on Wednesday night, it’s a good time to look back at their first 12 games and look ahead to their next 18, including their first-ever league encounters against new members Missouri and Texas A&M.
Because of those two extra conference games, for the first time in several years the Vols won’t have their SEC schedule interrupted with a non-conference game. So from now until March, it’s all SEC, all the time.
How will the Vols fare? First, a look back:
Best win: Without a doubt, it was a 69-60 barroom brawl victory over then-undefeated Wichita State, which has won four straight since, by the way. The Vols held the Shockers to 38 percent shooting, and perhaps more impressive, managed 69 points themselves, significant in that they had scored just 75 in their previous two games, losses at Georgetown and Virginia.
The star of the Wichita State game was junior point guard Trae Golden, who scored a game-high 25 points and handed out five assists. Golden got himself to the free-throw line 16 times and knocked down 13 shots.
Worst loss: This is a tossup between the lackluster effort against Oklahoma State in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off or the 37-36 loss at Georgetown. The Vols shot just 32.6 percent from the field and 18.8 percent from the 3-point line against the Hoyas’ zone, which coach John Thompson III hadn’t planned on using as much as he did until he saw the Vols were helpless against it.
Despite that poor shooting, Tennessee’s worst offense came at the free-throw line. Had the Vols just had a bad free-throw shooting effort, they would have won the game. Instead, they bricked eight of 11 from the line—that’s right, 27.3 percent—and lost by a point.
Those are the losses that turn coaches into insomniacs.
Best player: Junior guard Jordan McRae has tossed a couple of single-digit scoring game stinkers out there this season, but he’s been far more consistent than his previous experience indicated he might.
Tennessee fans can only hope his 26-point performance against Memphis becomes closer to the norm than the exception. If McRae’s 3-point shot is serving him as well as it did against Memphis (5 of 12), the dude is a handful for anyone to try and check.
Most puzzling player: Hands down it’s Jarnell Stokes, who, save for an 11-point, nine-rebound effort against his hometown University of Memphis on Friday, has struggled mightily against the better teams on the Vols’ schedule. Some have questioned his intensity level.
In the big man’s defense, he won’t turn 19 years old until Jan. 7. But it would sure be nice if he could return to the form he showed last year, when, barely out of high school and in just two months worth of the regular season, he earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team.
Former LSU coach Trent Johnson compared him to Wes Unseld after the rookie dropped 18 points and seven rebounds in a win over the Tigers in Baton Rouge. For all you whippersnappers, trust us, that’s good.
Stokes has played nowhere near that level this season, and, again in his defense, there could be another good reason.
Biggest disappointment: No, it wasn’t getting embarrassed on their home court in the first half against Memphis on Friday. The Vols’ biggest disappointment has been the mysterious, post-surgery knee issues of preseason All-SEC player Jeronne Maymon, who is likely to redshirt. That decision could be made early this week.
Without Maymon, opposing defenses have been free to collapse on Stokes, frustrating him and turning him into a huggable kitten rather than the young lion he was a year ago.
Trending upward: Sophomore swingman Josh Richardson was, shall we say, encouraged by Martin to get more aggressive on offense, and he’s done it. His 20-point, 9-rebound effort against Memphis was the best game of his young career. His 2-of-4 effort from 3 was encouraging. This team can use someone, anyone, who can toss in a 3.
Trending downward: Another tossup, this time between senior shooting guard Skylar McBee and Golden.
McBee was shooting 40 percent from 3-point range heading into the Georgetown game and is 11 of 46 since (23.9 percent), dropping his season average to 30 percent. The Vols have to get three 3-pointers a game from McBee or SEC defenses are going to smother them.
A ligament injury on his shooting arm could be bothering McBee more than the tough competitor lets on.
Golden has gone down hill since that 25-point number he put on Wichita State, scoring 16, 10, five and four points in the four games since. Here’s another scary stat: he’s made just one field goal in his last three games.
Again, could an injury be to blame? He’s had left shoulder issues.
What lies ahead: There can be no overstating the importance of the Ole Miss game. A win gives Tennessee some momentum heading into consecutive road games at Alabama—which is injury-riddled and struggling, having lost five of its last seven, including at home to Mercer and Tulane—and Kentucky.
Pull off a win at Alabama and it’s a 2-0 start with some positive vibe heading to Lexington. Kentucky has more raw talent, but the Vols are tough and experienced. If they could start making a few more 3s to open up the post a bit, who knows?
Prediction: The SEC is weak this season, providing the Vols opportunity. Call it a 10-8 league mark, which will give them an 18-12 record heading into the league tournament with a chance to move off the NCAA tournament bubble and into the field.