KNOXVILLE – The Vols will likely be without point guard Trae Golden, one of their top ball handlers, when they travel to Arkansas on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, ESPNU).
Golden left Tuesday’s win over Vanderbilt with an injured right hamstring late in the first half and did not return. Coach Cuonzo Martin confirmed before Thursday’s practice that an MRI revealed a strained hamstring, not a tear, for Golden.
He’s officially listed as day to day, but is also “doubtful” for the Arkansas game, according to Martin.
Martin did not give an exact timetable for Golden’s return, but didn’t rule him out for UT’s game against Georgia next Wednesday.
“It’s tough for our team,” Martin said. “I thought he had really been assertive [lately] with the ball. So it’s tough for our team, but more importantly, it’s tough for Trae. He wants to be out there. He’s upset about it. But we have to keep moving.”
It’s another frustrating twist to the season for Golden, who lost his starting role at Alabama on Jan. 12., after starting the first 13 games of the season.
After a breakout sophomore year in 2011-12, Golden was expected to run the point all season, but by the beginning of 2013 his point totals and assists started going down while his turnovers went up. In his final three games as a starter, Golden had a total of seven assists and seven turnovers.
Junior Jordan McRae, normally more of a shooting guard, took over the point-guard duties and will remain the starter at Arkansas. If Golden is out as expected, sophomore walk-on point guard Brandon Lopez will likely see an expanded role.
Lopez, a Knoxville native, has seen action in 10 contests this season, including 10 crucial minutes in the 58-57 win over the Commodores on Tuesday where he had three assists and no turnovers in the second half.
“I’m always focused in practice,” Lopez said on Thursday. “I’m always zoned in, cheering other guys on, helping out where I can. My mindset is always the same whether I’m playing one minute or 40 minutes.”
Lopez will face a stiff test on Saturday against an Arkansas squad that leads the SEC in turnover margin (plus-6.5). The Razorbacks’ pressure defense is a challenge for even the most seasoned SEC points guards, so the relatively inexperienced Lopez will need a huge game.
Senior forward Kenny Hall has confidence that he will.
“He brings a lot of energy and a lot of heart to the table,” he said of Lopez. “He does a lot of the dirty work at the guard position. We’re going to need him. . He’s like a young leader out there on the court.”
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga