At the halfway point of Tennessee's 2012-13 basketball season, it's safe to say we're not where we thought we'd be. It's also safe to say not all of it could have been avoided. Jeronne Maymon's absence continues to haunt this team from a number of standpoints ranging from fan perception to offensive efficiency to overall leadership. But every one of Tennessee's 15 games have been played without Maymon; the longer you play the more you are what your record says you are.
So Tennessee is 8-7, barely above .500. Losing four straight hasn't helped. However, even coming into the season with the assumption that Maymon would be at full strength, Vegas probably wouldn't have picked UT to be better than 1-2 in the league right now. There's no question Memphis had more overall talent. And the Vols had chance after chance after chance to beat a Georgetown team on the road that was ranked until this week.
It's not good. But it's probably not quite as bad as we think it is right now, and maybe not that much worse than we really should've expected without Jeronne Maymon.
That's the real issue with fan perception: everyone, including and especially me, was confident this team would be better than its predecessor, and its predecessor was a one seed in the NIT. And there's only one place to go from there.
We undervalued Maymon. We clearly undervalued Ole Miss along with the rest of the league. And the Vols have had real chances to win at Georgetown, at Alabama, and at Kentucky despite coming up short each time. It's not as bad as we feel right now, right?
Tennessee's defense took two nights off against two explosive teams, but has generally been solid every other night. In what is news to absolutely no one, it's the Vol offense that's been problematic. Tennessee looks no more fluid or purposeful offensively than they did last year, when lengthy scoring droughts cost them against Ole Miss and MTSU in postseason play.
We're competitive despite the absence of any sustained production from Trae Golden, Jarnell Stokes, and Skylar McBee. And that sentence is a blessing and a curse: it's truly very impressive that Tennessee has been competitive, especially on the road, without any real scoring from the guys we thought would give us most of the scoring this season. Credit Cuonzo and the coaching staff for involving other faces and keeping us afloat defensively. But it's truly very disappointing that Golden and Stokes (I'll give McBee a pass for the injury) have been non-factors, literally and figuratively. And some of that has to be on Cuonzo and the coaching staff too, right?
Golden has been hurt too, and no one misses Maymon more than Stokes. But we're halfway through the season and four games into a losing streak where both have been liabilities. In the ever-present quest for this team's identity, the lack of production from Golden and Stokes is moving every game from trend to DNA.
Here's where we need to credit Jordan McRae and Yemi Makanjuola.
We've been using the word "potential" with McRae for four years. But only now has the redshirt junior crossed the line where he's more about what he is than what he could be. This isn't flashes, it's brilliance: 34 of 67 (50.7%), 10 of 29 from three (34.4%), and 96 points in four games in January against good teams. When the Vols needed McRae the most, he has responded with better basketball than we've ever seen him play, and has earned the trust of everyone in the program.
Yemi is Steven Pearl in a bigger body: makes everyone on the floor better, defends like a pro, takes charges with the best of them. You know you're trading offense away, but the Vols made that trade and had a chance to cash in a victory at Rupp before the big guy fouled out, another one of Baby Pearl's tendencies. But Yemi also has a higher ceiling to go with that bigger body; he's been a steal for Cuonzo and gives Tennessee's defense an extra dimension in the paint.
Josh Richardson is improved, Armani Moore and Derek Reese are coming along, and Kenny Hall still gives us the production we expected from him. And again, remember: this team will get everyone except McB43 and Hall back next year, plus Maymon, plus five star guard Robert Hubbs. We still need another ball handler, but the 2013-14 Vols should be even better than we thought the 2012-13 Vols would be.
But that's later, and now matters. This season is only halfway over, and these Vols still have a chance to make it count.
As you know, we can always go dancing by way of the SEC Tournament. And UT still isn't in as bad a state as they were at this time last year; the Vols are 103rd in the RPI despite the 0-3 start in league play, and tomorrow's opponent from Starkville has the worst RPI in the conference (239) despite a 2-1 start in conference. The Bulldogs beat South Carolina and Georgia but then got the business end of Alabama in Starkville, 75-43. In other words, it's a good place for Tennessee to start feeling good about themselves, especially with the game in Knoxville.
And then it's revenge week: the Vols get to immediately run it back with Ole Miss in Oxford on Thursday, then the quick turnaround for Alabama in Knoxville next Saturday. I don't think we'll have any trouble getting 'em up for the Rebels this time around.
If you want to calculate tournament odds, then yeah, time is running out. But before it does, the Vols still have meaningful opportunities to win games that would help that resume a lot.
More than anything, I want to get better. While Cuonzo showed he's not afraid to go with four guards against Kentucky, which means Jarnell Stokes may continue to struggle and see decreased minutes, I just don't see how this team wins meaningful games without Golden. Tennessee simply has to put him on the floor for significant minutes because we have so few other options to handle the ball; even McRae's January run has come with a J.P. Prince-like 9 assists and 9 turnovers. We've seen Golden excel in this offense - we desperately need him.
And yeah, Stokes isn't playing up to what he could be. Will we see that again this season? At this point I don't know, but the team has given themselves a chance to win without it and come close a number of times. We can't and won't rely on Stokes to be the magic potion - this team has shown it can find a way to be there in the final minutes without him, and I don't think his absence had much to do with the turnovers that have killed us the last two games.
We can be frustrated with Cuonzo because the offense continues to struggle and our best players haven't shown up. But we also need to give him credit because the Vols have been right there without heavy production from those guys. The fine line we walk has left us, no surprise, just above .500.
Maymon won't save the season and there's no indication right now that Stokes will either. And yet, the Vols have been right there. So in the second half of the year with much left to play for, what buttons will Cuonzo push? Can he get the Vols over the hump and turn close losses into victories on the strength of McRae, Yemi, newcomers, and the same relentless defense? Or are the Vols truly destined to dance with .500 the whole year?
The story continues tomorrow at 4:00 PM against Mississippi State.