Just before the tip-off of Tennessee's showdown against Arkansas, news surfaced that the Vols' starting power forward Kenny Hall was suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team.
It didn't make a difference in the game as the Vols (14-12, 6-5 SEC) cruised to a 77-58 victory, and it won't for the rest of the season if Hall isn't reinstated.
While Hall has started in 16 of Tennessee's 26 games, he's been somewhat of a disappointment. The junior was expected to develop into one of the conference's more fierce post players, but has struggled with fouls and lost his starting job to Jarnell Stokes.
Luckily for the Vols, Stokes and forward Jeronne Maymon are arguably their best two players.
"It's going to be tough (without Hall)," Sophomore guard Jordan McRae said. "But it just means someone else is going to have to come off the bench and step up."
McRae was that someone against Arkansas, coming off the bench to lead the Vols with 14 points.
The Vols are on a hot streak, winning their last four and five of six, with the one loss coming on the road at Kentucky. The difference for them has been ball movement and dribble penetration, which has created wide open shots and lay-ups.
"When we use our dribble (penetration), lanes open up and guys get open," McRae said.
Ball movement and attacking allows for easy feeds to post players. If the Vols keep this up, Maymon and Stokes should be able to get it done without a problem in Hall's absence.
Will the Vols make the NCAA Tournament?
Losing Hall (who averages 6.2 points and 4.5 rebounds) on the post gives Stokes the ability to log some extra minutes and develop. A top-15 recruit nationally, it's time for Stokes to gain the necessary experience so he can assert himself as the dominant post player he's expected to become.
Hall's powerful dunks and defensive prowess will be missed. But it's nothing irreplaceable for Tennessee, and they possess enough talent down low to keep up their winning streak.
This team is finally playing complete basketball led by point guard Trae Golden, who is averaging more than 15 points and five assists in his last four games (all Volunteer wins). Head coach Cuonzo Martin, who pulled Golden out of the line-up briefly this season, said it all starts with him.
"The biggest key is Trae," Martin said. "Great teams have great point guards, and he's been putting his team in a position to be successful."
With their most experienced player, Cameron Tatum, going through a massive shooting slump (shooting 10-for-46 in his last seven games), players like Skylar McBee and McRae have been stepping up to contribute scoring. The Vols are 10-0 this season when "McThree" scores in double figures.
Having already played nine ranked teams this season, the Vols have none left in their five remaining games. If they keep up their winning pace into the SEC Tournament, this team likes their chances.
"I think so, without a doubt," Martin said when asked if he would take his chances against any team in the nation.
There's never a good time for one of your key players to be suspended, but Martin and the Vols lucked out that it happened when it did.
Quotes were obtained by the author on Feb. 15, 2011 after Tennessee's win against Arkansas
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