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Tennessee Basketball: Grow in December, Show in January

With final exams behind them, the Vols return to the hardwood Saturday for the first of six local mid-major games in the next twenty-four days. It's a good time for Cuonzo Martin's Vols to continue to mature while facing competition not quite as stiff as the likes of Duke, Memphis, and Pittsburgh. But this is their last chance to take a deep breath. Compare the next six games...

  • Sat Dec 10 - Austin Peay
  • Wed Dec 14 - at College of Charleston
  • Tue Dec 20 - UNC-Asheville
  • Fri Dec 23 - ETSU
  • Thu Dec 29 - The Citadel
  • Mon Jan 2 - UT-Chattanooga the seven that come next:

  • Wed Jan 4 - at Memphis
  • Sat Jan 7 - Florida
  • Thu Jan 12 - at Mississippi State
  • Sat Jan 14 - Kentucky
  • Wed Jan 18 - at Georgia
  • Sat Jan 21 - UConn
  • Tue Jan 24 - at Vanderbilt
The first six have a combined record of 20-31 (and Charleston is 7-1). The next seven are 45-14, with five ranked and Vanderbilt receiving votes.

I'm not trying to do tournament math and figure out how many the Vols need to win (an equation that includes a sweep of the next six, of course). What I do know is that Tennessee needs to have their best basketball ready to roll when January gets here, and needs to close the gap between playing close and finding ways to beat good teams. This team, in my mind, has already answered the important question of whether or not they'd be good enough to have a chance every night. They do. Now they need to increase their odds.

Tennessee's December run starts with Austin Peay at noon tomorrow in Knoxville. The Governors, of Ohio Valley Conference fame, just snapped an 0-9 start with an overtime victory against Arkansas State. So, yeah, this little run should get off to a good start; Memphis beat them by 31.

Charleston will be a bigger test, and we'll deal with them specifically next week, but in general here's what we want to see from the Vols during this December run, the most important areas of growth that will give Tennessee a chance to make some noise in January:

Trae Golden's role more clearly defined

Is he the team's leading scorer, is he the offense's primary distributor, or is he both?

The good news is, the Vols appear to have enough options offensively that Golden doesn't have to be both. Golden averages 6.1 assists per game; it should be noted that Melvin Goins led the Vols last season at just 2.8 per game. But in the losses to Duke and Oakland, Golden had just three assists combined. Perhaps his 3 for 19 performance against Memphis cooled off some of his scoring assertiveness, and I'm not necessarily suggesting he needs to take more shots than anybody. But he's going to continue to be the catalyst for this offense - I think that's an offense that's most productive when Golden is taking a balanced number of shots and making sure that the rest of the team is optimally involved. I think it's more important for Tennessee that Golden be a good point guard than a good scorer.

More consistency on both ends from Jordan McRae

I know what you're thinking, but I'm not about to burden our young sophomore with any Scotty Hopson comparisons. For the most part, the reason McRae's numbers have been a bit of the roller coaster is because Cuonzo Martin has benched him twice in seven games because of his defensive effort. He played just 17 minutes against Louisiana-Monroe and just 20 in the double overtime loss to Memphis, which means his numbers were down. It was only against Pittsburgh where he played big minutes and still struggled to produce, just five points in 30 minutes on 2 of 8 shooting. Josh Richardson is shaping up to be a solid defender, but in no way does he give the Vols the same dynamic on offense. I have zero concerns about McRae's ability on that end, he just needs to play defense well enough to stay out there.

More double-doubles from Jeronne Maymon

Against Duke and Memphis he was sensational. He had eight points but only took five shots in the loss to Oakland. And then against Pitt he was 6 of 10 from the floor, but only grabbed a single rebound. The guy doesn't need to be what he was against Memphis every night, but if Tennessee is going to survive in the SEC, they need Maymon to be a presence offensively and on the boards more often than not. Another big game in both departments would help re-establish his dominance.

Who separates themselves in the post?

Here are the numbers on UT's non-Maymon post players this season:

  • Kenny Hall: 6.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 18.6 minutes
  • Renaldo Woolridge: 5.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 16.0 minutes (DNP vs Pitt)
  • Dwight Miller: 3.0 points, 1.9 rebounds, 9.4 minutes
  • Yemi Makanjoula: 2.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 11.2 minutes (DNP vs ULM)
Are any of these guys good enough to pull away from the others? Kenny Hall had his best game against Pittsburgh and still probably has the highest ceiling. Woolridge sat the entire Pitt game but had strong numbers in limited action otherwise, even though I'm still not sure what his natural position is. Yemi is raw in every sense of the word. And Miller hasn't gone away, giving the Vols an 11 man rotation when all four play in the same game.

Hall should continue to start and get the most minutes, but it would nice to do something besides try to figure out who's having the best night down there.

Will the three point shooting continue at this pace?

In terms of both percentage and attempts. The Vols are at 42.1% as a team, and their main shooters - Golden, McRae, Tatum, and McBee - are a combined 54 of 117 (.461). If we're shooting that well, I have no problem with taking at least the 20.7 per game the Vols are currently averaging. I think we were worried early that this team would have no offensive identity beyond jacking threes, but that hasn't been the case: Golden can distribute, McRae can get his own shot, and Maymon can enter beast mode. I feel like other than a handful of rushed shots that every team has in November, the vast majority of the threes the Vols have taken have been good looks. Last year the Vols took 17.6 threes per game but made only 30.0% of them. What I'd hope with this team is that they truly are good enough shooters that the bottom won't totally fall out and cost us a game we should otherwise win...but that they can also be hot enough to help us win a game we should otherwise lose.