published Saturday, January 21st, 2012

UT Vols hosting defending champs

Tennessee guard Trae Golden (11) goes to the basket against Memphis defenders Chris Crawford, right, and Ferrakohn Hall (0) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012, in Memphis, Tenn.
Tennessee guard Trae Golden (11) goes to the basket against Memphis defenders Chris Crawford, right, and Ferrakohn Hall (0) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012, in Memphis, Tenn.
(AP Photo by Lance Murphey)

KNOXVILLE -- From seven minutes on the court to watching the NCAA tournament on television, Tennessee point guard Trae Golden got a pretty close look at Connecticut last season.

Just don't ask the Volunteers' sophomore to compare that national-title winning team to the Huskies who will visit Thompson-Boling Arena this afternoon without expecting a quick answer and a laugh.

"Kemba Walker," Golden said Friday of the star ex-UConn guard who now starts for the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats. "I watched all those games."

He wasn't alone.

"I thought it was the Kemba show," said UT forward Jeronne Maymon. "They had a good supporting cast, but he really made those guys go."

Walker no longer does that, but coach Jim Calhoun's 26th UConn team hardly plunged out of the rankings. The number of NBA scouts -- which should surpass a dozen, according to one UT official -- who will be present today is an easy indication of that. Landing a pair of five-star forwards is the quickest way to restock the cupboard.

"They do a lot of similar things," said Golden, who's battled pain in his left ankle since injuring it in the loss at Mississippi State late last week. "But at the same time, they don't because they don't have a Kemba Walker anymore."

Most mock drafts have 6-foot-10, 270-pound forward Andre Drummond in the top five picks for June's draft. Smooth sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb, who as a freshman averaged 16 points per game on 58-percent shooting during the Huskies' tournament run, is easily a lottery pick. Junior forward Alex Oriakhi shows up on most draft boards as well.

"I watched last year's team from afar and I saw them on film, but they had a very talented Kemba Walker who controlled the tempo, controlled the game and could make plays," said first-year UT coach Cuonzo Martin. "They feed off their big guys probably a little more this year, but the talent is still the same. I think when you lose a guy like Kemba Walker who could really control the complexion of a game, it's a big difference."

There wasn't much of a difference when the season began. The Huskies won 12 of their first 13 games, but Wednesday's home loss to Cincinnati was their third defeat in five games. That stretch included road losses at Seton Hall and Rutgers, though UConn won at Notre Dame in its last road game.

The Vols have been better at home in their last two home games, a win against 17th-ranked Florida and a three-point loss to No. 2 Kentucky. Even after their overtime loss Wednesday at Georgia, Calhoun dubbed them a "deceptive" team during a conference call with other Big East Conference coaches Thursday.

UConn was one of Martin's finalists when he was coming out of high school, but Purdue's location and coach Gene Keady led the Vols' coach to pick the Boilermakers.

Martin's biggest concern today is keeping Lamb and point guard Shabazz Napier, who's coming off a 27-point game against Cincinnati, from penetrating and getting Oriakhi and Drummond easy looks. With Maymon and freshman Jarnell Stokes, the Vols have a couple of bruisers who create a matchup in the paint that's worth watching. The 6-8 Stokes had 11 points and eight rebounds in 26 minutes in his second collegiate game.

"[Stokes] demands the ball," Martin said. "I think he's the one guy that really wants the ball every time down, which is a good sign. Him and Jeronne, those two guys really demand the ball. [If] we can get those guys involved in the offense every time down, we could be OK."

Martin wants his team to take the same approach for every game, but an opponent like today's can make that difficult.

"It means so much because they are the defending national champions," Golden said. "They have so many great players. Any time you get a chance to play Connecticut, no matter their record, I think it's a huge thing."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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