News of this magnitude usually comes on the backside of at least some level of foreshadowing. But I'm not sure anyone saw this coming: Trae Golden, senior-to-be and multi-year starter for the Vols, is leaving the program via transfer.
This news casts a shadow on the high expectations set before the 2013-14 basketball Vols. Just last week Jarnell Stokes announced he would return to school for his junior season, a decision made in part because he saw Jeronne Maymon play after recovering from the knee situation that forced him to redshirt last season. News of Stokes' return, Maymon's recovery, and the impending arrival of highly coveted freshman Robert Hubbs had Vol fans looking to the upcoming season as the one when Tennessee would return not just to the NCAA Tournament, but the standard of excellence Bruce Pearl established in Knoxville. Golden's absence does not leave a roster devoid of talent, to be sure - all of the above names will still return, as well as first team All-SEC performer Jordan McRae, defensive stopper Josh Richardson, and a host of younger talent that got their feet wet last year. Tennessee still has every opportunity and really every right to be a good basketball team.
Trae Golden was a very positive factor for the Vols last season and the year before, of that there is no doubt. However, Golden is not a true point guard and never was, and Tennessee's inability to handle strong ball pressure cost them a number of times last season, most notably at Alabama and at Kentucky, either of which had they gone the other way could've put the Vols in instead of out on Selection Sunday. Golden was always more likely to go off in points than go off with assists. The lack of a true point guard and now point guard depth in general become primary concerns for the Vols going forward.
If Tennessee subscribes to the "put the best five players on the floor" mentality, that's an easy call with McRae, Richardson, Hubbs, Stokes, and Maymon. Going that route would certainly put the ball in McRae's hands more often. However, Cuonzo's motion offense has lacked fluidity in its first two seasons, and though the Vols could certainly be strong with McRae, Hubbs, and a ton of offensive rebounds, I still feel like a true point guard who can create better opportunities for his teammates would be a far better option for this team. Everyone is going to need to pass the ball better, thankfully something Maymon is already pretty good at.
McRae and Richardson have both played point before with limited success. 6'5" Armani Moore was listed as a point guard upon his arrival in Knoxville last year, but never really blossomed in that role despite a strong freshman start in general. The Vols just released incoming freshman Trevon Landry from his scholarship, who was thought to be an answer at point guard a year ago. Murfreesboro's Darius Thompson will be wearing orange this fall, but also falls under the "not a true point guard" label. This could put the ball back in the hands of Brandon Lopez, a Knoxville walk-on who saw a few significant minutes at point based on foul trouble or general ineffectiveness earlier this year.
Regardless of the answer, Tennessee still has the pieces to have a really good basketball team that can still generate noise in March. It's the job of Cuonzo Martin to figure out how to best put those pieces together now that a significant one is off the table.
And just what happened with Golden? No one knows yet, it appears. Statements from Cuonzo Martin, Trae Golden, and the university seem to suggest mutuality. Rumblings on twitter from former teammates, however, do not:
Vol Nation y'all don't want to know how I feel about all of this .... SMH!!— Tobias Harris (@tobias31) May 7, 2013
According to tweets from his best friend @tobias31, sounds like this wasn't Trae's decision.— Kris Budden (@KBudden) May 7, 2013
The second tweet, from WBIR's Kris Budden, was retweeted by Tobias.
Either way, no one seems to have a firm handle on this and there certainly should be more details coming.
All of this puts Cuonzo Martin in an interesting place. When Martin arrived Vol fans assumed the program was in store for a lengthy rebuild without Pearl. Instead, Cuonzo led the Vols to a pair of furious finishes, and you can make an argument that the Vols were the first team out of the NCAA Tournament each of the last two years. That's a strong accomplishment given where things were and the injury to Maymon, but it also carries the extra frustration of coming so close and missing the dance floor twice.
I'm not worried about this team's ability to dance. I'm worried about how many games it can win in March without Golden or a true point guard. Do the Vols still have the pieces for greatness? I think you can argue the answer is very much yes. What's the best way to put them together? That's why they pay Cuonzo the big bucks.
We'll talk more about the future in the future. For now, this is a sad day for Tennessee Basketball, because Trae Golden was a big part of making sure we didn't need a total rebuild over the last two years, keeping the energy and excitement around the program alive and giving the Vols a chance to dance. Golden will be missed, and everyone associated with Tennessee Basketball will appreciate what he gave to Tennessee, and wish him nothing but the best in the future.