KNOXVILLE – Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin has always asked a lot of his point guards.
For that reason, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that Martin benched Trae Golden, his two-year starting point guard after the junior slumped through four games.
Golden hit just 4 of 26 shots, averaged 6.5 points, 2.8 assists and two turnovers per game during a four-game stretch from Dec. 21 to Jan. 9. Martin made the switch before a 68-65 loss at Alabama on Saturday. Golden came off the bench against the Crimson Tide and scored eight points on 3 of 9 shooting.
“I thought he did a solid job,” Martin said on Monday of Golden’s performance against Alabama. “Now I don't think he was at the level of Trae Golden that he could be, but I thought he did a solid job. I thought in the second half he did a better job attacking the rim, especially late – making plays.”
But Martin didn’t see enough from Golden to return him to his normal starting role when the Vols travel to Rupp Arena to face Kentucky (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) on Tuesday night. Martin also downplayed Golden’s sore shoulder, which he has been playing with since the beginning of his slump, saying that it “isn’t serious enough to keep him out of the game.”
Instead, Martin will stick with somewhat of a point-guard-by-committee approach that he used in Tuscaloosa, letting swingman Jordan McRae bring the ball up the court in many situations. Swingman Josh Richardson and guard Skylar McBee will handle the ball as well. Golden will come off the bench, as will freshman point guard Armani Moore. Sophomore reserve point guard Brandon Lopez remains an option, too.
“One of the things (McRae) is good at is attacking ball screens – when he can turn that corner, because he has good length, can see over the double team and make decisions and make passes,” Martin said. “I thought he was pretty good at it (at Alabama). He can move the ball. He can attack off the bounce and, when the double team comes, he knows how to find shooters.”
Though McRae and the other ball handlers might bring some advantages, the Vols lose Golden’s experience in handling the press and the trap when he doesn’t bring the ball up the court.
Tennessee lost multiple crucial turnovers in the closing minutes against Alabama’s trap, something Martin said cost the Vols a chance at pulling off the road win on Saturday.
“We have to do a better job of taking care of the ball in stretches and situations,” Martin said.
Perhaps Moore, who logged a career-high 21 minutes and tied his career high with seven points against Alabama, is part of the solution to the the point guard issue in Knoxville. The bouncy, 6-5, 205-pound freshman out of Kennesaw, Ga., was a late addition to Tennessee’s 2012 signing class, but he has shown flashes of athleticism and court awareness that make him a possible solution to some of the problem.
To avoid overloading Moore, Martin has used him as a hybrid wing/point guard who brings the ball down in situations, but doesn’t have full command of the motion offense.
That allows Moore to focus on making plays and frees him from thinking too much on the court.
“I think it really helped him where he's able to flow a little bit,” Martin said. “Now he can grow into (a true point guard) in the future, but I think for right now it helps him to play off the ball.”
Martin will hope that Moore’s evolution into a true point guard happens over the next two years. Golden and McRae will move on after 2013-14. There’s no clear-cut point guard of the future on the roster.
The Vols signed point guard Travon Landry out of Huntington (WV) Prep in November, but some analysts have questioned the 6-foot, 175-pound prospect's potential to be a starting point guard in the SEC. No other major programs pursued Landry after Tennessee nabbed an early commitment from him in December of 2011.
The Vols have no scholarships currently open for 2013-14, but that hasn’t stopped Martin from continuing to evaluate the point guard position from a recruiting perspective. Attrition is a normal part of college basketball, and a transfer or discipline issue could easily open up an extra spot next year.
Martin is expected to check in on Emmanuel Owootoah of Cordia (Ken.) High School next week. The fast-rising, 6-foot point guard has an offer from the Vols and San Francisco at this point, but he's being pursued by other powers such as Arizona and Baylor.
It never hurts to be prepared. Especially when the most important position on the court needs to be taken care of.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga