All things considered, Tennessee’s basketball team got about as much out of its trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis as it could have.
True, the loss to UTEP in the opening round was a surprising result, but the Miners aren’t a bad basketball team, as evidenced by their narrow loss to Kansas in the tournament consolation, and they’re well coached by Tim Floyd, an experienced veteran who has surrounded himself with three former Division I head coaches on his staff. Not much gets past that group.
It was reasonable to assume Floyd could come up with a way to take out Tennessee’s scoring weapons, and he did—a triangle and two that blanketed guards Jordan McRae and Antonio Barton with man coverage and packed a three-man zone in the paint around posts Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon.
“UTEP's Tim Floyd makes teams play left-handed—do things they're unaccustomed doing like attacking Triangle & 2,” wrote ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla in a tweet.
The Vols were slow to react against the Miners, but apparently learned a lesson that could carry through the rest of the season. Though Stokes and Maymon are stout, strong and active, they are vertically challenged compared to the big men they’re going to face against the better teams on the schedule. Neither is a prototypical, back-to-the-basket post that the Vols can just throw the ball in to and expect an easy score over a taller opponent.
Truth be told, Tennessee hasn’t had a player like that since Steve Hamer (1992-96), a seven-footer who had a decent assortment of scoring options in the paint. Jeff Lebo, then a South Carolina assistant, once told me Hamer was the hardest player in the SEC to game plan against.
Stokes is a beast, and Maymon, when he was healthy two years ago was capable of getting 30 points and 20 rebounds in the same game, which he did against Memphis. But they can be taken out with a pack-it-in-the-paint approach. Both have to score by being given angles to the rim. That can be accomplished with high-low or screening action on the baseline.
Sure enough, after the UTEP loss, the Vols regrouped against the same Xavier team that beat them in their season opener. Stokes was moved to the high post and became the bulkiest passer in the country. He handed out three assists in that game, and also pounded the Musketeers with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Maymon had his best scoring game of the season, contributing 14 points. Afterward, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin told the media Stokes is a “much better passer than he gets credit for,” and he proved it again on Saturday, passing for three more assists while racking up a 21-point, 10-board double-double against Wake Forest.
In a way, the Vols can thank UTEP. They probably weren’t going to finish any better than 2-1 in the tournament anyway, not with Kansas, Iowa and eventual winner Villanova in their path. And the loss to the Miners opened their eyes. They’re going to see junk defenses and packed lanes all season. They have to have patience to probe and attack. Rushed 3-pointers won’t get it done on most nights.
There were other benefits from the trip to the Bahamas. It seems apparent Martin has trimmed his rotation to a core of eight players—Stokes, Maymon, McRae, Barton, Josh Richardson, Robert Hubbs, Darius Thompson and A.J. Davis. That the later three are freshman is a good thing, because they’re the future of a program that will suffer heavy personnel losses after this season.
More important to the present, though, is the continued maturation of point guard Darius Thompson, who had his best game against Wake Forest—16 points, including 9-of-9 shooting from the free-throw line, three assists and just one turnover. Thompson has been remarkably sure-handed as a reserve point guard—he’s committed just four turnovers in seven games and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4-1—but Martin had wanted him to become more aggressively offensively.
Thompson leaves the Bahamas a more confident player, and the Vols, who could have let the loss to UTEP drag them down, salvaged the trip with two solid wins. At 5-2, they’ve got a chance to build their NCAA tournament resume with games at Wichita State and at home against NC State and Virginia. None will be easy, but the lessons they learned in defeat could continue to pay dividends in December, and on through March.