KNOXVILLE —As Trae Golden goes, so goes Tennessee.
For better or for worse, the fortunes of a certain orange-clad basketball team are directly linked to the play of the man wearing No. 11. The Vol point guard’s fingerprints were all over their disappointing 3-6 start in Southeastern Conference games, a stretch during which the preseason all-conference players lost his starting job and missed two games with a hamstring injury. But to be fair, if some of the blame can be heaped on Golden’s shoulders for that head-scratching first half of league play, so can he claim a good deal of the credit for Tennessee’s current three-game winning streak.
It’s hard to say why the mercurial guard can seemingly turn it on and turn it off—no one on this team, including Golden, can explain it either—but suffice it to say that when the junior is engaged, when he comes to play and not spectate, he’s as good as there is in the league.
He proved that in Tennessee’s improbable 88-58 beat down of No. 25 Kentucky on Saturday. Yes, the Wildcats missed Nerlens Noel, the country’s leading shot blocker who tore the ACL in his left knee at Florida on Tuesday and is lost for the season. But as good as he is, Noel wasn’t worth 30 points.
Golden was, though. In fact, add up the 24 he scored and the 16 that came off his eight assists and he accounted for 40 points. Toss in the fact he didn’t commit a turnover. Blend in three rebounds and stir with a little 11-of-12 effort at the free-throw line and you’ve got as good a game from the point guard position as Tennessee fans have seen in many years.
“With the struggles at the beginning of the season, Trae Golden wasn’t playing at the level he’s playing now,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “That’s the bottom line. When Trae’s playing well, he opens things up for everybody else.
“That was the plan going into the season. But I think the only time Trae really brought that to the table was against Wichita State (25 points, five assists, 13 of 16 from the free-throw line in a 69-60 win). The way Trae’s playing now, that’s what we expected at the beginning of the season. If that doesn’t happen, everything else breaks down.”
Asked what was wrong with Golden during his January slide that forced Martin to experiment with walk-ons and shooting guards at the point, the coach shook his head.
“I wish I knew,” Martin said. “If I knew, it would never happen again.”
Golden, too, was at a loss. “If I knew, I’d have fixed it,” he said. “There are a lot of peaks and valleys in the game.”
There’s no doubting that. But the willingness to throw his stocky frame into the paint, to challenge all comers, that shouldn’t be susceptible to slumps. Jump shots, sure. There are mechanical issues, confidence lapses. But attacking the rim? That’s a mindset. That’s want to.
Perhaps there was a time when Golden, the primary focus of every opponent’s scouting report, found the going a bit too rough for his liking.
“At the beginning of the year, teams were really keyed in on him,” said junior guard Jordan McRae. That was kind of frustrating for him. Trying to get open, always having somebody bumping you. Things like that can get frustrating.”
Perhaps. It can also get frustrating for coaches. But to his credit, Martin didn’t let any frustration show. And to his credit, Golden didn’t let being benched ruin his season. He accepted it and worked hard to get his old job back.
“And it’s finally starting to pay off for me,” Golden said.
It’s also starting to pay off for the Vols. Consider what they’ve done since Golden awakened from his early-SEC slumber. Golden scored 16 points and got to the free-throw line 10 times at South Carolina and the Vols won their first road game of the season. He scored 12 points, grabbed seven rebounds and handed out three assists at Vanderbilt and Tennessee won its second straight road game.
And that brings us to Kentucky. Though marveling at his team’s inability to defend Golden going to his right hand, which obviously was underlined and highlighted in the scouting report, Kentucky coach John Calipari had to give Golden his due.
“He made his free throws,” Cal said. “He was strong with the ball. He was good defensively. He denied.”
It’s not likely that the hole the Vols dug for themselves while Golden was away can be filled in during the last six games of the regular season. In the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, this team doesn’t exist right now. But who knows? If Golden stays in attack mode, maybe, just like last year, the Vols have a chance to resurrect their season with a late Feburary/early-March run.
“When he plays like that,” Martin said. “Everything else just falls in line.”