Pains-taking research reveals that there is a sure-fire way to get Tennessee's basketball team a berth in the 2014 NCAA Tournament:
Start the season in February.
The Vols are 13-3 under Cuonzo Martin in February games the past two seasons. The other months? They've been underwhelming, and that's putting it mildly.
The Big Orange hasn't merely stumbled out of the starting gate the past two seasons; it has fallen so far off the pace that, essentially, it was out of the race for an NCAA Tournament bid before it hit the home stretch.
Take Martin's 2011-12 team, for instance. It went 3-3 in November with one of the wins coming at the expense of Div. II Chaminade. That Vol squad also went 3-3 in December, with a humiliating homefloor loss to a 1-9 Austin Peay squad. The competition stepped up in January but the Vols didn't. They went 4-6, with an 18-point loss at Memphis, an 18-point loss at Vanderbilt and a 25-point loss at Kentucky. So, three months into the season the Big Orange sported an ugly 10-12 record.
Incredibly, when the calendar turned to February, Tennessee turned into a well-oiled machine. With mid-term freshman Jarnell Stokes flexing his muscle, the Vols highlighted a 7-1 month by upsetting No. 8 Florida in Gainesville. Still, it was too little, too late. After a bad outing in the SEC Tournament, the Big Orange was snubbed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
You'd think that gut-wrenching experience would have taught the Vols how detrimental a poor start can be but, apparently, it didn't. The 2012-13 season was a virtual replay of the previous year.
After opening with a 76-67 defeat of Kennesaw State, the Vols headed to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. They beat UNC Asheville 75-68 in Round 1 but were trounced 62-45 by Oklahoma State in Round 2. That loss shook the team's confidence, even though it came back to beat UMass 83-69 in the consolation round.
|Providing point guard help for Trae Golden will be vital to the Volunteers.|
"We have to come out stronger," Stokes said. "Guys have to come out and take it serious. That opening tournament we didn't take it serious enough."
Although the Big Orange went 4-2 in November and 4-1 in December, it derailed offensively against almost every quality foe. In addition to scoring a mere 45 points versus Oklahoma State, the Vols managed just 36 and 38 points in back-to-back losses at Georgetown and at Virginia. Basically, Tennessee's outside shooting was so bad in November and December that opponents double- and triple-teamed Stokes down low.
"Guys have to be able to make shots," he said. "We can't have three or four (opposing) guys in the paint on the defensive end at all times. Guys have to be able to make shots."
The utter lack of offensive firepower continued haunting the Vols in January. Their 3-5 record for the month easily could've been 1-7 except that Lady Luck was shaking orange pom-poms in one-point home wins against Alabama (54-53) and Vanderbilt (58-57).
Despite a combined 11-8 record in November, December and January, the 2012-13 Vols again caught fire in February. After dropping their first two games of the month, they jelled and swept the remaining six. Included was another upset of another eighth-ranked Florida team.
The 6-2 record in February raised hopes that an NCAA Tournament bid might be looming. Another poor SEC Tournament outing dashed those hopes, however.
To recap: Cuonzo Martin's first two Vol squads went a combined 21-20 in November, December and January games. Then, once an NCAA bid was little more than a pipe dream, they rallied to go 13-3 in February games.
Point guard Trae Golden concedes that the Vols can't afford another slow start in 2013-14 if they intend to make the NCAA Tournament field next March. The key, he believes, is for each Vol to commit himself to that goal during the months ahead.
"Just be ready to be consistent," he said. "Work in the offseason and be ready for next year. We can't start out slow in any aspect. We've got to be ready to play from the first game."
Unless Stokes opts for the NBA Draft, all five 2012-13 starters will return for next season. That should help avert a slow start in 2013-14. Then again, Tennessee returned four starters this past season, and that didn't stop the Vols from suffering a slow start in 2012-13.
|Incoming freshman Robert Hubbs provides another scoring threat to the Tennessee backcourt.|
"The key next year is the same as it was this year," Golden said. "We had a lot of people coming back. Everybody's just got to look at themselves individually and see where they can get better."
Although Tennessee's offense was abysmal last November, December and January, one Vol thinks the defense was more to blame for the 11-10 start. He also thinks defense is the key to a faster start in 2013-14.
"I think the key for next season is to defend early," departing senior Skylar McBee said. "We've got to be on our game defensively for the team that's coming in next year. I think they'll do that. I think Coach Martin will have them where they're ready to go, and I think they're going to be a very good team next year."
McBee's optimism is based on the return of all five players who started the final 16 games of 2012-13, the return of Jeronne Maymon from knee problems and the arrival of five-star recruit Robert Hubbs.
"Hubbs is very good, and you've got a lot of guys returning," McBee noted. "I think we've got the pieces to be successful next year."
The availability of Maymon, a first-team preseason All-SEC pick who missed the season with recurring knee troubles, could be the biggest benefit for the 2013-14 Vols.
"That's big," McBee said. "Jeronne is so good on both ends of the floor, and he does a lot of stuff for us, as far as rebounding and also playing offense."
Maymon also is known for a level of toughness that often inspires the players around him.
"Especially for younger guys, as vocal as he is," McBee said. "He's a tough guy, and I think they respond to that."