published Saturday, January 4th, 2014

UT Vols believe player meeting spurred two-game streak

  • photo
    Tennessee's Jordan McRae yells out after drawing a foul against Virginia.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — One day after a humbling home loss to North Carolina State last month, Tennessee's basketball players gathered for a meeting.

The Volunteers, then on a two-game losing streak, had stumbled to a 6-4 start and, though there were plenty of games still on the schedule, found themselves backed into a corner.

Whether the team's response in the two games since that players' meeting is a product of that session or simply better play, Tennessee appears to have gotten itself back on track on the eve of SEC play.

"It was the seniors: myself, Jeronne [Maymon] and D'Montre [Edwards]," leading scorer Jordan McRae said before the Vols practiced Thursday afternoon at Pratt Pavilion. "We told everybody we wanted to meet to see how everybody felt. We were just also trying to help each other get better without hearing it from a coach.

"Sometimes hearing it from one of your friends or your peers, it'll help better than hearing from a coach."

In the two games since the N.C. State loss and the ensuing players' meeting, Tennessee scored 82 points in a 15-point win against Morehead State and 87 points in a 35-point thrashing of Virginia. The Vols shot 51 percent from the field, made 17 of 30 3-point attempts and recorded 38 assists on 59 made baskets.

After today's breather against Division II Tusculum College, Tennessee should be riding a three-game winning streak into SEC play, which sends the Vols to LSU and Kentucky for two of their first four league games.

"A lot of people were going through some the same struggles, and I had no idea it would make this big of an impact," forward Jarnell Stokes said after scoring 20 points in the Virginia win. "I don't know if it's coincidence or not, but ever since the players' meeting, guys have had their heads up coming to practice and in games. The numbers show."

Up until the mini-streak, though, the Vols were a disappointment. A season-opening loss at Xavier got Cuonzo Martin's third season as coach off to a sour start, and Tennessee laid an egg in a brutal loss to UTEP, a game that will be a black mark on the Vols' NCAA tournament resume and cost the Vols a chance to face some combination of Iowa, Villanova and Kansas.

Tennessee let a potential quality win slip away in the last 10 minutes at unbeaten Wichita State before falling behind by 17 points in an eventual loss to the Wolfpack.

That's when the players got together to chat.

"Just not panicking about our record," guard Josh Richardson said. "We were 6-4, I think, at that point. People were trying and starting to write us off or whatever. We were just like, 'Play our game, play comfortable,' because we felt like we were playing too tense. We were just trying to relax everybody."

It appears to have worked, though the sample size is small and the trick is now continuing to play how most expected to Vols to play before the season.

"Everyone was able to voice their opinions," Stokes said. "The tone started off pretty bad. Everyone was frustrated after the N.C. State loss, but next practice, we had a very good practice. Guys were very frustrated with certain things going on in the program and certain things on the floor, and some guys were frustrated they weren't playing as much.

"It really worked out. It really did."

While McRae wouldn't credit the meeting as the role reason for the Vols' mini-turnaround, he acknowledged it's helped.

"I feel like we've been playing hard," he said. "I'm not going to say [the meeting's] the reason why we're winning games; we're winning games because we're playing well as a team. I think that has a factor in it a little bit."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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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