Back in the good old days Tennessee knew what to do in the closing minutes of a tight basketball game: Get the ball to Chris Lofton and watch him find a way to win.
Lofton is gone, however, and so are the good old days. That's why the Vols head into tonight's 9:05 tipoff at College of Charleston still searching for a "go-to guy" in the clutch. And that's why they carry a 3-5 record, coming off a humbling home-floor loss to Austin Peay.
The most recent outing is a perfect example of Tennessee's crying need for a go-to guy. Down 71-70 entering the final minute, these were the Vols' options:
A. Set up a play for Trae Golden, who leads in scoring average but was 1 of 7 from the field at that point in this particular game.
B. Set up a play for Cameron Tatum, who is the only senior in the playing rotation but was 0 for 5 from the field at that point in this particular game.
C. Try to work the ball inside to Jeronne Maymon (8 of 10 field goals, 18 points) or Kenny Hall (5 of 5 field goals, 12 points), who were being closely guarded.
D. Hope gifted but streaky Jordan McRae (14 points, 3 turnovers) could make a play.
Tennessee tried Option A but Golden missed a layup. The Vols got the offensive rebound, however, and went with Option B, only to have Tatum's layup attempt blocked inches from the rim.
After a basket by Austin Peay widened the gap to 73-70, Tennessee chose Option E (none of the above) and tried to get the ball to backup guard Skylar McBee (3 of 6 from 3-point range). When McBee couldn't get open, the Vols returned to Option A but Golden's 3-pointer missed badly.
To recap: Golden misfired twice in the final minute and finished 1 for 9. Tatum missed once in the final minute and finished 0 for 6.
Struggling in the clutch is not a new development for this Tennessee team. In a 99-97 Game 5 loss to Memphis Maymon missed a potential game-winning shot in the final seconds of the first overtime and missed a potential game-tying shot in the final seconds of the second overtime.
In a Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh Golden had the ball with a chance to tie the score in the final 10 seconds only to be tied up without getting off a shot.
With a go-to guy to make one clutch play against Memphis, one clutch play against Pitt and one clutch play against Austin Peay, Tennessee's record would be 6-2 instead of 3-5.
Given the Vols' late-game futility, you wonder if they have become tentative in these situations. Head coach Cuonzo Martin thought he saw some of that in the closing minutes against Austin Peay.
"I did," he said. "When they started pressuring a little bit, instead of attacking and getting to the rim and finding the guys on the blocks, I thought the guys were trying to buy time and pass it to the next guy and allow him to make a play."
Teams generally try to work the ball inside in late-game situations, figuring they'll at least get two free throws out of the possession. Not Tennessee. Hall and Maymon combined to score 17 of Tennessee's first 21 points versus Austin Peay, yet neither attempted a shot in the game's final 13 minutes. That was inexcusable.
"It's a combination of posting strong, wanting the ball," Martin said. "The one thing we talked to Kenny and Jeronne about was they have to demand the ball in the blocks. And, it's not to say the guards are selfish, but you have to demand the ball in the blocks."
Perhaps Hall and Maymon will demand the ball in late-game situations someday. In the meantime, Tennessee continues its search for a go-to guy. Ideally, that guy would be a senior but, with only one senior in the playing rotation, the Vols may have to look elsewhere.
Admitting that he has "a team that's going through the fire, an inexperienced team that's finding its way," Martin added: "For us as a coaching staff, sometimes we sit there and say, 'Who do we go to? Who's feeling good? Who's confident enough to take this shot, to execute a play?'
"Young guys can make plays; that's not the case at all. It's just a matter of these guys playing with each other more than it being youth. As a coach, you try to figure out the best guy to put the ball in his hands to try and make a play."
For now, at least, finding that "best guy" remains a work in progress.
NOTES: College of Charleston brings a 7-1 record into tonight's game. The Cougars haven't played since Dec. 3, when they beat visiting UT-Chattanooga 87-85 in double overtime.... Charleston's most impressive victory to date was a 72-69 win at Clemson; its only loss was by a 74-63 score to Central Florida at the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas.... Charleston's projected starters are 6-9 Adjehi Baru (7.9 points, 5.6 rebounds per game), 6-8 Trent Wiedeman (13.5 points, 8.8 rebounds), 6-7 Antwaine Wiggins (17.4 points, 6.9 rebounds), 6-1 Andrew Lawrence (13.6 points, 5.3 assists) and 6-1 Jordan Scott (6.4 points per game).... The Cougars are coached by former Georgia Tech head man Bobby Cremins.... Tonight's game will be televised by ESPN2.... College of Charleston beat Tennessee 91-78 last December at Thompson-Boling Arena, handing Bruce Pearl the second-worst home loss of his six-year run in Knoxville. The worst was a 90-72 setback to Kentucky in 2009.... Charleston shot 57.1 percent from the field and 56.0 percent (14 of 25) from 3 in last year's game. Guards Andrew Goudelock (10 of 15 field goals, 6 of 7 from 3, 31 points) and Donovan Monroe (7 of 11 field goals, 4 of 7 from 3, 27 points) shredded the Vols' perimeter defense. Neither is with the team this season.