Back in November as the college basketball season got underway, I thought the Tennessee men’s team could be pretty good, even though they were without big-time post player Jeronne Maymon. Despite playing well at times, there was still something missing. It became evident the first time as the Vols were routed by a very good Oklahoma State squad in the San Juan Tip-Off Classic. Losing five of six games in January started people talking about Coach Cuonzo Martin and his coaching ability. Starting 3-6 in the SEC was not exactly meeting much loftier pre-season expectations. Then…..a light came on! Junior point guard Trae Golden started becoming a factor in games, and sophomore post Jarnell Stokes started becoming the “beast” we all expected him to be in the middle. Coach Martin finally found a “go-to” scorer in swing man Jordan McRae and the Big Orange made a big turn-around.
Prior to the Vols disappointing loss at Georgia Saturday, they had exploded for six straight wins, including a thirty-point blow-out of rival Kentucky and an upset win over fifth ranked Florida this past Tuesday night. Now, most college hoops fanatics are saying Tennessee has little chance of making the NCAA field. With two regular season games left before “March Madness” kicks in, the Vols are 17-11 and 9-7 in the SEC. If they can win the next two, they would be 19-11, 11-7 in the league and would need at least a couple of wins in the SEC Tournament to just stay on the NCAA bubble.
To finish 19-11 is not going to be a cake-walk, but it is very possible. While the Vols failed miserably at Georgia this past weekend, they have a chance to right the ship Tuesday at Auburn, before closing the regular season with a home game against Missouri. “I think everybody on this team understands that nothing is promised,” said Trae Golden this week. “We’ve just got to continue to play together as a team.”
If fans remember, Tennessee had a similar hot streak last season, but the usual quick exit from the SEC Tournament dropped them from the NCAA bubble into the NIT. Even with the loss of Jeronne Maymon, this Vols’ squad is quite a bit better than last year. Even though Trae Golden has played as well as any point guard in the country in the past month, he is not the difference; Stokes and McRae are big differences. In the early part of the season, Stokes played as if it were Jarnell against the world, without Maymon on the front line with him. He struggled against other mediocre post players. He stayed in foul trouble, and at times looked too big and slow to play in the SEC. He is certainly playing with much more confidence and he continues to make big plays for the Vols in every game. As for Jordan McRae, he has suddenly come out of nowhere to become one of the biggest offensive threats in college basketball. While McRae “tickled the twine” for 35 points in a losing effort to the Bulldogs, his teammates struggled greatly.
No matter what happens the rest of this season, with a healthy Maymon returning along with every other player, with the exception of seniors Kenny Hall and Skylar McBee, Tennessee should be a top-25 team in the pre-season polls for the 2013-2014 season. The Vols should also be a top three choice in the SEC as well, and could even be the pre-season favorite.
I don’t really want to think much about next season, as there is still too much promise for the 2013 campaign. Like most other Tennessee fans, I hope the Vols’ big turn-around continues for a while longer.
Randy Smith has been covering sports in Tennessee for the last 43 years. After leaving WRCB-TV in 2009, he has continued his broadcasting career as a free-lance play-by-play announcer. He is also an author and is a media concepts teacher at Brainerd High School in Chattanooga. He is also the Head Softball Coach at Brainerd. Randy Smith's career has included a 17-year stint as scoreboard host and pre-game talk show host on the widely regarded "Vol Network". He has also done play by play of more than 500 college football, basketball, baseball and softball games on ESPN, ESPN2, Fox Sports, CSS and Tennessee Pay Per View telecasts. He was selected as "Tennessee's Best Sports Talk Show Host" in 1998 by the Associated Press. He has won other major awards including, "Best Sports Story" in Tennessee and his "Friday Night Football" shows on WRCB-TV twice won "Best Sports Talk Show In Tennessee" awards. He has also been the host of "Inside Lee University Basketball" on CSS for the past 11 years. He was the first television broadcaster to ever be elected to the "Greater Chattanooga Area Sports Hall of Fame", in 2003. Randy and his wife, Shelia, reside in Hixson. They have two married children (Christi and Chris Perry; Davey and Alison Smith). They also have three grandchildren (Coleman, Boone, and DellaMae).