By Steve Williams
Just when University of Tennessee sports fans needed a lift, the men’s basketball team hit a couple of bumps in the road.
An 85-80 loss to Memphis followed by a 92-74 beating from Ole Miss in the SEC opener – both in front of home crowds – wasn’t what the patient needed after another losing football season … and Alabama winning another national crown.
But basketball season is not over, contrary to popular belief in some corners of Big Orange Country. Coach Cuonzo Martin reminded us of that after the Rebels left Thompson-Boling Arena, smiling all the way back to the Magnolia State.
“We keep playing,” said the coach. “You’re talking 17 games left. You go out there every game to compete and play hard – these are things we can control.”
That was the message as the Vols prepared for Saturday’s game at Alabama. Tennessee goes to Kentucky Tuesday night for a 7 o’clock battle with the Big Blue. Mississippi State should provide an easy test this coming Saturday afternoon at 4.
If the Vols lose to the Bulldogs, Coach Martin will have to find the panic button. But I don’t expect that to happen.
Basketball, like many sports, is a game of momentum. Shooters get on a hot streak. A team gets on a roll. Tennessee, which finished a surprising second place in the conference’s regular season race last year, has enough talent to turn things around, despite the loss of Jeron Maymon, who is being red-shirted this season.
Basketball also is a long season and a tournament sport. A team doesn’t want to peak too soon. March, of course, is the best time to be running on all cylinders.
Jordan McRae was a bright sport in UT’s recent two-game skid as he put together back-to-back 26-point outputs to secure a spot in the starting five. “Jordan’s earned his way on,” said Coach Martin, who also praised Jarnell Stokes and Yemi Makanjuola for their inside play against Ole Miss.
Tough man-to-man, half-court defensive play had been a strength of this season’s team, although a 37-36 loss to Georgetown and a 46-38 loss to Virginia wasn’t very exciting in the eyes of many Vol fans, who would like to see Coach Martin turn up the heat and game tempo.
Most Tennessee fans still fondly remember former Coach Bruce Pearl’s full-court pressure, which he referred to as “Controlled Chaos.” In those days, denying in-bounds passes and forcing five-second violations were exciting. And TBA rocked each time the opponent was turned over.
Looking at this season’s stat sheet would suggest a need for that kind of pressure. Through the first 13 games, Tennessee trailed its opponents in forcing turnovers 82 to 55.
Hopefully, the Vols’ shooting will get better, too. They’ve been making only 29 percent of their 3-point attempts and 67 percent of their free throws.
Meanwhile, the Lady Vols have been coming on strong, and the young team should keep getting better and better under first-year head coach Holly Warlick.
Their season started with that disappointing 80-71 loss at Chattanooga, but perhaps that was a blessing in disguise. They won seven in a row before bowing to mighty Baylor and Stanford, and now have won five straight, including SEC wins over South Carolina, Georgia and Missouri.
The Lady Vols played at Florida Sunday and will travel to Auburn Thursday before returning home to play Alabama on Sunday afternoon.
Bashaara Graves, a freshman forward/center, has been among the Lady Vols’ bright, young stars. Coach Warlick calls her “old school” and “a workhorse.” Sophomore center Isabelle Harrison also has been very productive. “They’re kind of our rock inside,” said Warlick.
Veteran Taber Spani, who has battled injuries in her career, is having a good season and fellow senior Kamiko Williams is showing consistency. Junior Meighan Simmons continues to be a big scorer, particularly from the outside.
Look for the Lady Vols to add another SEC championship to their trophy case this season and be a tough out at tourney time.
In a nutshell, while the football season may be over, basketball season is not.