By Steve Williams
There were times this basketball season when Tennessee Vols fans were either complaining or yawning or doing both.
That old saying in sports about “offense sells tickets and defense wins championships” was being put to a test, and head coach Cuonzo Martin’s style of play was being seriously questioned.
A 37-36 loss at Georgetown on Nov. 30 followed by a 46-38 loss at Virginia didn’t sit well with UT followers. We scored more points than this during the Kevin O’Neill days, I remember thinking. At least we won the 51-47 shootout with Xavier during the holidays.
Still, Tennessee’s style of play continued to draw criticism.
After a 68-62 loss to Georgia at home on Feb. 6, the Vols were 11-10.
Things did get better, particularly when Martin and his coaching staff switched to a four-guard offense, which freed up room for muscular Jarnell Stokes to be much more productive inside.
A six-game winning streak included an 88-58 blowout of Kentucky and a 64-58 grind-it-out win over Florida.
Back in the tourney talk, the Vols lost again to Georgia but bounced back for a 64-62 must-win over Missouri in the regular season finale.
Another meager offensive output in the quarterfinal round of the SEC tourney, however, resulted in a 58-48 loss to Alabama and doomed Tennessee to NIT status for the second year in a row.
When his third season rolls around, Coach Martin is going to be facing a must-make NCAA tournament field situation.
Putting a more entertaining product on the court also needs to be an objective.
A former Knoxville Central High standout could help the Vols accomplish these goals. Dre Mathieu is an exciting point guard who reportedly has received scholarship offers from a dozen NCAA Division 1 schools, including UCLA, Washington State and Ole Miss. He would like to have UT, his “home” school, on that list, too.
Mathieu said last week Tennessee watched him play one game but he hasn’t heard anymore from them. The ex-Bobcat said he plans to pick his new basketball home in a week or two.
Dre is only 5-9, 160 pounds but can fly. A 45-inch vertical helps him soar.
“I think I can play on any level,” said Mathieu. “I just need a chance.”
I covered one of his high school games when he was a senior at Central in 2011. He put on a show.
“Talent-wise, Dre is probably the best all-around guard I’ve ever coached in high school,” said former Central High coach Mitch Mitchell that February.
“He has awesome character and a grade point average over 3.00. He’s a very kind-hearted kid, respectful, a joy to coach. He’s one of those kids who comes along one of a few times in a coaching career.”
Mitchell, also a former college assistant coach at Carson-Newman, King and Glenville State, W. Va., also projected Mathieu would “make an impact on a (college) program.”
Many local fans have seen Dre’s high-flying dunks in the summer Rocky Top League at Bearden.
Mathieu was a walk-on freshman at Morehead State but earned his first start against West Virginia in the fourth game of the season. By the end of the season, he had become the Eagles’ regular first-team point guard, starting the final seven games. Mathieu left Morehead State when head coach Donnie Tyndall departed to take the Southern Mississippi job.
This past season Mathieu led Central Arizona College to the NJCAA Division 1 tournament in Hutchinson, Kan., where the Vaqueros lost 81-68 in the second round to College of Central Florida, which went on to capture the national championship.
The latest unofficial stats I saw on Mathieu had him averaging 17.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2 steals and 2.9 turnovers this season and shooting 52 percent from the field, 29 percent from 3-point range and 72 percent at the free throw line.
His entertainment value is off the chart.
Tennessee could use another point guard. Trae Golden, who will be a senior next season, has been inconsistent throughout his career. Even though their roster is full, we’ve heard the Vols plan to make room for another PG.
They would be hard pressed to land one more exciting than Dre Mathieu. His game will keep you awake. That’s for sure.