Rarely will losing two games inject so much optimism into a major college basketball program.
But such is the case in Knoxville. Even after a heartbreaking loss to hated Kentucky, there’s renewed optimism in Cuonzo Martin and the Tennessee program for a chance (albeit slim) at an NCAA tournament bid.
So says Wildcats’ coach John Calipari, whose team of future NBA stars were pushed to the brink against the Vols Saturday.
“I don’t really care what their record it. Tennessee is an NCAA tournament team. Just win the games your supposed to when.” (Knoxville News Sentinel)
With new superstar Jarnell Stokes stealing headlines across the country for his impressive collegian debut, here’s three more reasons to feel optimistic after the Vols’ 1-2 start in the SEC.
After holding opponents to 60 points or less just twice in non-conference play, Tennessee’s defense has allowed just 61 points per game against three ranked SEC teams.
Most impressively, the Vols held SEC opponents to an average of 18 points below their season scoring averages.
Against Kentucky on Saturday, the Wildcats came into Knoxville averaging 80 points per game as well as having three games of 70 points or more against ranked teams.
Against the Vols, that point total was cut by 15 with only three starters scoring ten points or more.
Martin’s players are also beginning to show the toughness their coach has preached since accepting the job in Knoxville. The Vols drew five charging fouls in the loss to Kentucky, three against UK point guard Marquis Teague.
Despite his low point totals, inserting freshman guard Josh Richardson in the starting five has helped the Vols become a defensive force and made Cuonzo Martin look like a genius.
So far in SEC play, the 6‘6" Richardson has five blocked shots (more than the rest of the team combined in those games) and two steals.
In his first start against Florida, Richardson teamed with Trae Golden and Cam Tatum to hold the Gators’ backcourt to just 11 of 32 shooting.
Mississippi State point guard Dee Bost had six turnovers and shot an abysmal 3 of 11 against the Vols, while Kentucky’s top offensive threat Doron Lamb was scoreless until deep in the second half, scoring his lone field goal in Knoxville last Saturday.
Jeronne Maymon began the season with a bang, asserting himself as a force in the paint with 72 points in the first four games (including the much publicized 32-point, 20-rebound performance against rival Memphis in the Maui Invitational).
However, Maymon’s production dropped considerably after his monstrous game in Hawaii. In the four games prior to conference play, Maymon’s points average was down to 6.75 and he shot a combined five for 19 against Chattanooga and in the rematch against Memphis.
But with his post-presence at the heart of Martin’s new offensive system, Maymon has returned to his early season form. The junior is shooting 58 percent in conference games for a scoring average of just over 13 points.
Maymon is also learning to use his considerable size advantage to draw contact under the basket, earning 21 trips to the foul line compared to 34 in all non-conference games prior (except the first meeting with Memphis).