If you didn't believe Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin was all about defense, his decision to start Skylar McBee over leading scorer Trae Golden on Saturday night should change your mind.
"I just felt like Trae needed to work harder and lead us as a point guard," Martin said. "Not necessarily production, but his approach and intensity level on the defensive side of the ball."
On the edge of falling into the SEC's cellar, Golden came off the bench to lead the Vols to a 73-62 home win over Georgia on Saturday night. He had a game-high 16 points, and added six assists and five rebounds.
Tennessee has proven to have massive upside in wins over Connecticut and No. 12 Florida, but a sub-.500 record and bad losses to Austin Peay and Oakland, among others, have them nowhere near the NCAA tournament bubble.
One of the biggest problems for the Vols has been prolonged offensive slumps, especially in the second half. In a game they simply had to win Saturday, Golden stepped up and attacked the rim when a victory was seemingly slipping away.
Martin insists that he made his decision on who to start based on hard work and effort, not to send a message.
"He may not be sending a message, but it still sends a message that I have to do some things better," Golden said. "I told myself I had to come out and work harder for the team."
Jeronne Maymon and freshman stud Jarnell Stokes feature one of the best frontcourt one-two punches in the NCAA, but inconsistent guard-play has been a major downfall for Tennessee. Senior leader Cameron Tatum has had a disappointing season, and former starter Jordan McRae (despite 14 points Saturday) isn't scoring up to his potential.
This team has showed tremendous heart, and believes in Martin's system. If they can play the offense that they showcased against the Bulldogs, this team is a major sleeper to make the Big Dance.
Martin wouldn't announce that his point guard had re-earned his starting line-up spot, but the quiet, soft-spoken coach was pleased with Golden's performance.
"Oh, he did a good job," Martin said.
Once doubted as a good hire by many, including myself, Martin has shown he knows how to get the most out of his players. Whether they make a late season push or not, another offseason with his team and the newly-attained Stokes will translate to huge results in 2012-13. Look for this Vols team to get back to the Elite Eight very soon.
Follow Steven on Twitter: @scookbr
Quotes obtained after Tennessee-Georgia game on February 4, 2012 by the author.