It was far from perfect, but it was perfectly fine.
With the door to Bruce Pearl's turbulent career completely closed, the Tennessee Volunteers basketball team ushered in the Cuonzo Martin era Friday night with a thorough 92-63 thrashing of Southern Conference foe UNC Greensboro.
Gone is the NCAA investigation cloud and announcers constantly referring to illegal cookouts and bump rules. Friday night was -- finally -- all about basketball, and while the Vols had spurts of sloppiness and struggled on the boards, there were plenty of moments where this completely refurbished program looked like it might be OK.
All in all, it was what season openers are supposed to be: a cakewalk win with a feel-good finish. Even though it was against a Spartans team that really had no business hanging with a SEC opponent, that shouldn't derail our spirits. After all, we had no idea what we'd see from this group, and you'd be hard-pressed after the final buzzer not to feel, at least, like this team has a chance to mature into a decent basketball team based on one game. Throughout, there were glimpses of things about which to get excited.
- FIrst, there was sophomore point guard Trae Golden -- or, at least I think that was Golden out there. The player who spent most of last season either terribly timid or too out-of-control has morphed into the Vols' best player. He not only looked like the kind of look-to-score option a green team needs, but he also has transformed himself into a true point guard. With him at the helm, the Vols appeared under control and consistently poised.Not since C.J. Watson has UT had a real, valid point guard, and Golden has obviously worked hard at becoming a player who looks like he can be. To look at the scoring column alone would be exciting as he erupted for a career-high 29 points on 10-of-14 shooting. But when you glimpse deeper, his game was much, much more impressive. He also pulled down six rebounds, and, most importantly, dished out nine assists while turning the ball over only twice. It was an elite game, no matter the opponent, and Golden looks like he wants to be the go-to guy this season -- as well as the table-setter. Very, very impressive showing by the sophomore.
- It wasn't just Golden who showed out offensively, though. The Vols, at times, couldn't miss from the floor. Martin's teams are not known for their firepower, but UT shot 64.6% from the floor, including an eye-popping 15-of-24 (62.5%) from 3-point range. When he took quality shots, fellow sophomore Jordan McRae looked like a potential quality scoring option down the road, scoring a career-high 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting (4-of-5 from 3-point). Though he doesn't always take the greatest shots, McRae's athleticism, length and quick-trigger make me think he's a high-ceiling player if Martin can keep him reigned in. He'll be interesting to watch progress throughout the year. Skylar McBee hit both his attempts from outside; and Cameron Tatum made two of his three 3-point attempts, as did Renaldo Woolridge.
- Speaking of "Swiperboy," the popular but often polarizing senior was somebody I really wanted to see something from in his season debut. He has been largely disappointing and sometimes disinterested throughout his career. Maybe I'm one of these old codgers who want to see him focus more time on the gym than his haircut or rap career. But, on Friday, he was very impressive, scoring 11 points and pulling down a team-high eight rebounds. He made two 3-pointers and played hard almost every minute he was out there. It was exactly what we need from him, and that fired me up as much as anything.
- Finally, I didn't think Jeronne Maymon played particularly hard all night, but he was assertive offensively, and -- other than two consecutive low-post moves by Kenny Hall late in the second half, he was the only UT post player who looked like he cared to score. Maymon looks much more in shape than a year ago, and it showed as he worked for 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, both career bests.
Friday just felt ... different. It felt new and fresh. While it was a little bit sad not seeing Pearl stomp over there on the sidelines, face red, suit soaked, barking orders and bantering with officials, it didn't take long to appreciate the man now leading our program.
To sit here and take shots at Pearl, a coach I loved and held reverently for so long, would be wrong. To dwell on his career on Cuonzo's night would be equally wrong. So, the comparison will end with this: Let's just say there's very little similarities between the two head coaches. Where there was once the showman Pearl stood the stoic Martin, solemn-faced, low-voiced, always looking just a tinge pissed. Pearl taught with his hands and his face; and Martin appeared to bark in a low voice, anger in his eyes. Where Pearl's teams were wild with talent and often, well, wild, Martin's group looked like it will strive to be fundamentally sound and defensively driven, even if there were lapses in both against the Spartans. Where Pearl's players seemed to play somewhat out-of-control for games at a time, Martin's team -- mostly because of Golden's calming influence -- played more under control.
All those positive words, though and there was still plenty [P-L-E-N-T-Y] to teach. It's hard not to be a little perplexed and frustrated that the Vols were out-rebounded 34-31 by a SoCon team and that included an astounding 20 offensive boards that led to a 15-5 second-chance point advantage for the Spartans. There were still 13 turnovers, and UT only forced 10 by the Spartans.
Perhaps as frustrating was the Vols' lack of any post presence outside of Maymon, who often was out of position on rebounds and spent most of the second half in foul trouble. UNCG outscored the Vols 32-24 in the paint, and Tennessee struggled to get the ball inside at times. Of course, to be fair, when you're shooting so well from the outside, why try to go inside?
Indeed, it's pretty tough to find negatives in a 29-point win in a new coach's debut, especially when virtually everybody on the floor was either playing in his first game or at least his first game in a new, spotlighted role. Take all that into account, and Friday was fun. It was a good baby step, and UT will only have one more of those before a trip to Hawaii where Duke and another national-power awaits the Vols, who will see the teeth of one of the nation's toughest schedules very, very soon.
So let's enjoy this one tonight, shall we? Even though it's ONE GAME. Against UNC Greensboro. On a night where not much went wrong. To pass judgment on what we should expect this year either way would be ridiculous, but coming off a season rife with embarrassment off the court and disappointment on it, a debut like Friday's was refreshing ... a quality first step in what's likely to be a long season. UNCG isn't Duke, it isn't Pitt, it isn't Memphis, it isn't Vanderbilt or Kentucky. But it is a win, and it was thorough.
It wasn't perfect. But it was a perfectly fine start to a new era.