If all of Tennessee's basketball players improved as much the past nine months as Yemi Makanjuola, the Vols would be 8-0 instead of 5-3 heading into tonight's game with Presbyterian.
As most fans are aware, Makanjuola didn't even start for his high school team (Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, N.C.). Because Tennessee desperately needed some inside muscle, however, Vol head man Cuonzo Martin gambled and signed the 6-foot-9, 244-pounder 21 months ago. That gamble is starting to pay significant dividends.
Makanjuola played probably his finest game as a Vol in last Thursday's 69-60 upset of No. 23 Wichita State, just missing a double-double (9 points, 8 rebounds) in 20 minutes of quality relief action. Shocker center Carl Hall grossly outplayed Tennessee's starting post duo of Jarnell Stokes and Kenny Hall, sinking 9 of 10 shots and pulling down 7 offensive rebounds, but Makanjuola generally held the Wichita State standout in check.
"I watched the way he played Jarnell and I saw what he likes to do and the way he did it," Makanjuola said, "so I played him for what he can do and I blocked him from what he likes to do."
Tennessee's head coach was impressed.
"That was a tough matchup for Yemi against (Carl) Hall, who's physical and runs and is a very good player," Martin said. "But he played an exceptional game. We couldn't find ways to stop him, and I thought Yemi did a great job accepting the challenge."
Tennessee's starting point guard thought so, too.
"Yemi played great," Trae Golden said. "Yemi has a knack for doing the intangibles. He does things you can't teach. He's always around the ball, diving on the floor. It's just a great thing."
Makanjuola's willingness to dive onto the floor and into the stands in pursuit of loose balls has made him a crowd favorite. Fans appreciate his all-out hustle and aren't shy about showing it.
"I try not to pay attention to the crowd," he said. "I just try to do what I need to do. Our crowd cheers for anybody that comes in."
Basically, Makanjuola is more concerned with firing up his teammates than firing up his fans.
"I like bringing energy and toughness," he said. "It doesn't just give you the win but it gets your teammates going."
Makanjuola's hustle and determination makes him a hardnosed defender and rebounder.
"I like to put my body on people," he said, flashing a grin. "I try to play that way but not try to foul them."
Conversely, he was an offensive liability when he showed up on The Hill as a freshman last fall. Although he exploded against The Citadel —
producing 18 points in 13 incredible minutes —
Makanjuola scored just 46 points in the other 27 games he played last season.
"He's always been a defensive guy," Martin said. "I think more than anything he's gaining the confidence. Down the stretch in a game, if we need a stop, I'll put Yemi on the floor anytime because he makes plays, does a great job with the scouting report and knows how to carry out his assignments. Physically, he's going to block out."
Makanjuola has devoted himself to improving his scoring ability, however, and that devotion is beginning to produce tangible results.
"I've been working on that," he said. "I try to take my time on offense, not try to force something when I can't do it. If I get the rebound close to the rim I try to put it back. I'm not trying to force anything out(side) of the offense."
Tennessee needs as much offense as Makanjuola can generate because its best inside scorer, senior Jeronne Maymon, is not expected to play until the SEC portion of the schedule arrives in early January.
"We want Jeronne back," Makanjuola said. "But even if he doesn't come back, I want to keep playing aggressive and bring energy to the team."
Asked if he feels the need to pick up the slack with Maymon sidelined, Makanjuola nodded.
"Yeah," he said. "But not just me. We know how much Jeronne means to the team. With him being out, somebody needs to step up. He talks to me all the time, tries to push me on what I need to learn to step my game up, cover for him and for the team, too."
Makanjuola stepped up his game against Wichita State. Perhaps he can build on that performance in the months ahead.
"I'm probably the toughest on Yemi but he came in (versus the Shockers) and he was just impressive," Golden said. "He's a key guy for us. If he can do that all the time I think we'll be very hard to beat because you've already got Jarnell and Kenny down low."
GAME NOTES: Presbyterian brings a 2-8 record into tonight's game. The Blue Hose are in their first year of NCAA Div. I certification.... Presbyterian's top player is Khalid Mutakabbir, who averages 14.7 points and 3.7 assists per game.... Former UT graduate manager Brooks Savage is an assistant coach at Presbyterian, which competes in the Big South Conference. Tennessee is 26-4 all-time against Big South teams.... The Vols rank No. 23 nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 57.4 points per game.... Tonight's game will be televised by SportsSouth with a 7:05 tipoff.