When Jarnell Stokes plays well, Tennessee is a half-decent basketball team.
When Stokes and Jordan McRae play well, Tennessee is a pretty good basketball team.
When Stokes, McRae and Trae Golden play well, Tennessee is a force to be reckoned with.
McRae said it best: "If all three of us are playing well, with Josh (Richardson) and the other guys doing what they do, then we're a hard team to stop."
With all three clicking, the Vols have swept their last four games. They hope to extend that streak to five today at Texas A&M. If The Big Three play as efficiently as they have the past two weeks, there's a good chance it will happen.
"That's what makes us a dangerous team: We have a lot of options, a lot of weapons," Golden said. "You never know (who'll be the go-to guy). We're trying to make it where you can pick your poison: Whoever you stop that night, the other guy will get going."
Stokes agreed, noting: "I feel like we have about three or four guys that can score. That's hard to guard when you can't focus on one man."
Stokes should know. He was the "one man" opponents focused on earlier this season, and double-teams routinely shut him down. McRae warmed up when SEC play began in January but the Vols continued losing on a regular basis. It wasn't until Golden returned from a hamstring strain four games ago that the Vols finally exhibited enough perimeter punch to take some heat off the inside game.
"I feel like guys are shooting like they should have all season," Stokes said. "So, I mean, it's nothing special; it's just expectations."
He has a point. During their four-game winning streak the Vols have shot 50.5 percent from the field and 45.8 percent from 3-point range. As a result, they've averaged 73.5 points per game and outscored opponents by 14.3 points per game.
McRae has been red-hot the past three games, hitting 58.1 percent (25 of 43) from the field and 69.2 percent (9 of 13) from 3 en route to averaging 21.0 points per game. Counting his final trey of the Kentucky game, he has made his last seven 3-point attempts.
Still, the key figure in the recent winning streak is Golden. The junior point guard's stats over the past four games include 50.0 percent shooting (19 of 38) from the field, 88.2 percent shooting (30 of 34) from the foul line and an average of 18.0 points per game. Even more importantly, he has directed an uptempo offense without committing a rash of turnovers.
"I think the point-guard position is probably the most important position on the floor," Stokes said. "When Trae plays well, everybody plays well."
Although Tennessee's offense runs through Stokes, he got just eight shots Tuesday night against LSU. Conversely, guards McRae (18) and Golden (10) combined for 28 shots. Asked if that's a problem, Stokes shook his head.
"I don't get jealous of my teammates," he said. "Those guys are making shots. It would be another thing if they were missing them, but as long as they're making shots I'm good with it."
At 15-10 overall and 7-6 in SEC play with five regular-season games remaining, Tennessee may need to win out to have a reasonable shot at earning an NCAA Tournament bid. The Vols believe they can.
"We're jelling right now," McRae said. "We're becoming a family."
Golden thinks the Vols can keep winning if Stokes keeps asserting himself on the block.
"We have such a force inside with Jarnell," Golden said. "He makes it easier for perimeter players. If you're going to double down on him, then Jordan and I are going to make plays.
"I just think it's all coming together at the right time, and it's good for us."
GAME NOTES: Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin is rough on rookies. He is 3-0 this season against head coaches who are competing for the first time in the SEC. His Vols already beat Mississippi State's Rick Ray, South Carolina's Frank Martin and LSU's Johnny Jones. Texas A&M's Billy Kennedy is in his second season with the Aggies but first competing in the SEC.... A&M's best player, Elston Turner, Jr., is the son of Knoxville native and former Ole Miss standout Elston Turner. Junior hung 40 points on Kentucky as the Aggies prevailed at Rupp Arena earlier this season.... Tennessee is 4-1 in the all-time series with Texas A&M but 0-1 in College Station. The Vols are 3-0 in Knoxville and also prevailed at the 1985 Sugar Bowl Classic in New Orleans.... Tennessee won the last meeting 108-84 at Thompson-Boling Arena on Dec. 2, 2003. Native Texan Brandon Crump scored a season-high 18 points that night to lead the Vols.... Incredibly, the greatest player in each program's history is named Bernard King. Tennessee's King was a three-time first-team All-American (1975-77) who still holds UT records for scoring in a season (26.4 points per game in 1974-75) and a career (25.8 ppg). A&M's King, playing from 2000-03, finished his career as the Big XII leader in career points (1,990) and ranked third in assists (550).... Texas A&M is 16-10 overall and 6-7 in SEC action heading into today's game.... Tipoff is set for 3:01 Central (4:01 Eastern) with television coverage provided by the SEC Network.