Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin may never wear another bow tie again after his team’s crushing defeat at Alabama on Saturday, but the loss will prove to be a powerful reminder of how the Vols turned their season around.
In non-conference play, Tennessee relied heavily on perimeter shooting, averaging 21 attempts a game. (The Vols attempted 39 against Chattanooga.) In conference play, however, Martin shifted the offense inside, and the Vols went from SEC bottom-feeder to conference tournament darkhorse.
But with recent success from the three-point line and perimeter scoring threat Skylar McBee in the starting lineup, Tennessee returned to its inconsistent, long distance shooting ways.
In their three games prior to Saturday’s loss, the Vols shot 48 percent (26-54) from the thre-point line en route to two double-digit wins at home and an upset stunner on the road at Florida. Point guard Trae Golden led the team in scoring in wins over Arkansas and Florida, while McBee’s career-high 18 points led all scorers in the win over South Carolina.
In Tuscaloosa, however, the team’s new-found confidence in its shooting backfired. The Vols finished with an abysmal 4-of-20 from the three-point line and managed just seven field goals after halftime. Against a stout defense, Tennessee had a 12-minute stretch where its only points from the field came off a fast-break layup from Golden after a steal in the backcourt. McBee and fellow guards Cameron Tatum, Josh Richardson and Jordan McRae were a combined 2-of-22 on the night.
Meanwhile, Stokes and Maymon combined for 9-of-13 from the field for 28 points—more than half the Vols' scoring total. Maymon’s 20-point performance was his 12th in as many SEC games and 19th on the season. He now ranks third in the conference in field-goal percentage (56 percent) behind national Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis and Florida’s Patric Young.
The formula for Tennessee’s success is clear. In six conference wins, the Vols averaged 14 assists per game, compared to 8.5 in their six loses. If Martin and Co. plan to make a run in the SEC tournament and hold out hope of a chance for the NCAAs, their helter skelter backcourt must defer to their big men in the paint.