Some things are inevitable – death, taxes and criticism of Tennessee’s point guards.
Since four-year starter and current NBA player C.J. Watson departed following the 2005-06 season the point-guard position has been the Vols’ weak link virtually every season.
Here’s a quick history lesson:
Ramar Smith showed some flashes as a freshman starter in ’06-07 but regressed in ’07-08 and lost the job at midseason to senior Jordan Howell, who surrendered the job to 6-foot-8 J.P. Prince by finishing the season mired in a 4-for-40 shooting slump.
Junior-college transfer Bobby Maze played erratically for a season and a half before finishing with a flourish, helping lead a run to the 2010 Elite Eight. Fellow JUCO Melvin Goins was half-decent as a senior starter in 2010-11, then two-year starter Trae Golden ran hot and cold in 2011-12 and 2012-13.
With post-grad senior Antonio Barton transferring in from Memphis and coach’s son Darius Thompson coming in from the prep ranks, 2013-14 was supposed to be the year Tennessee finally solved its long-standing point-guard woes.
It hasn't happened.
Barton made 18 early season starts but is averaging a modest 7.0 points and 2.2 assists per game. He is shooting just 37.4 percent from the field. Though touted as a superior defender, he ranks sixth among the Vols in steals (11). And, after shooting 41.7 percent from 3-point range in three years at Memphis, he is hitting just 31.6 percent at Tennessee.
Thompson – a starter in nine games, including the last eight – is averaging 2.7 points and 2.5 assists. He is shooting 36.4 percent from the field and a frigid 17.1 percent from 3. At 6-feet-5, he struggles defensively against small, quick opposing point guards.
The Vols have gone just 5-5 over their past 10 games, and sub-standard point-guard play has been a key reason. Barton’s stat line for that stretch shows him hitting 24.2 percent (15 of 62) from the field and 18.4 percent (7 of 38) from 3. Thompson’s numbers are no better – 28.6 percent (8 of 28) from the field and 12.5 percent (2 of 16) from 3.
Both Barton and Thompson have shown occasional flashes. Barton produced five consecutive double-figure scoring nights against Virginia, Tusculum, LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn between Dec. 30 and Jan. 15. Thompson recorded a 16-point, 3-assist, 1-turnover performance against Wake Forest and a 7-point, 7-assist, 2-turnover outing against Ole Miss.
Game in and game out, however, Tennessee’s point-guard play has been lackluster. Saturday’s overtime loss at Texas A&M was just the latest example. Aggie starter Alex Caruso (14) and backup Fabyon Harris (13) combined for 27 points. Conversely, Barton (0 for 5 from the field) and Thompson (0 for 3) combined for 2 points on a pair of Barton free throws. Caruso (7) and Harris (2) also combined for 9 assists, significantly outperforming Barton and Thompson (1 each) in that area, as well.
Addressing the media at his weekly news luncheon on Monday, head coach Cuonzo Martin said he and his staff had just concluded a discussion of point-guard play. Their conclusion?
"You have to get production at that position,” Martin said. “It's not so much scoring points (but) running the team, distributing the basketball, getting guys in position to score. Whether or not you get the assist, (it’s important) getting guys in position and attacking the rim.”
Bottom line: Tennessee played reasonably well at four positions on Saturday but lost because of poor play from the point-guard spot. Martin hinted at this in a subsequent comment.
“When you have guys on the wings that are shooting 3-pointers at a good clip in Jordan (McRae) and Josh (Richardson) and you have two bigs (Jarnell Stokes, Jeronne Maymon) that demand a double-team around the rim, we have to be able to get in the lane and make plays.”
So, what is the key for Tennessee’s point guards in elevating their play?
“Just being more assertive and more aggressive,” Martin said. “I think that will get it done.”