KNOXVILLE - Cameron Tatum is back in a spot that's as familiar as it is unfriendly.
Stuck in a shooting rut.
In Tennessee's last three games, the Volunteers' senior wing has made just one of the 21 shots he's attempted and scored just two points. He missed all nine of his shots against Auburn last Saturday and all seven shots at top-ranked Kentucky in midweek. Since hitting four 3-pointers against Connecticut, Tatum has missed his last nine long-distance shots.
"I've just got to work harder, that's the main thing," he said Thursday, as UT began preparations for tonight's game against Georgia. "Confidence starts with yourself. One of the things [coach Cuonzo Martin] tells me is to stay in the gym and continue to keep shooting. If you stay in the gym and keep shooting, they'll fall and you'll see the work pay off."
There's nothing more Tatum, one of his own harshest critics, would like to see than one jumper fall through the hoop. This shooting skid, likely more of an issue of confidence than lack of work, isn't the Georgia native's first. Tatum reached double figures just once in UT's last 11 games at the end of last season and hit just 26 percent of his shots.
The defensive-minded Martin, a former 3-point specialist himself, is not the kind of coach to tell any of his players, regardless of slumps or hot streaks, to stop shooting. After UT beat Auburn last weekend, he said players must shoot "thousands" in order to become elite marksmen.
"I think you have to get in the gym and do it," said the first-year coach. "When your shots aren't falling and your technique is solid, it's just a matter of getting reps. With even the best shooters, it's confidence. [Boston Celtics guard] Ray Allen, he's shooting 500-plus the day of a game, so when you're a shooter, you have to consistently shoot a high volume of shots.
"Guys on our team are getting better with their shot, but there's probably only one guy that you would call a shooter. Other guys are basketball players."
That one guy is Skylar McBee, the junior from nearby Grainger County who's taken just 14 of his 112 shots this season from inside the 3-point line. Not surprisingly, he prefers a coach who tells his players to keep shooting.
"I think it inspires confidence," McBee said. "I think as a shooter, at least the ones that I've been around, you get down more on yourself than anybody else does on you. It's just a matter of staying positive. It's a whole lot easier to do that when you've got a coach who tells you to take those open shots."
Even with an all-time green light, Martin said shooting still requires work outside of practice.
"It's one thing for a coach to encourage to shoot them, but you have to feel good about shooting," he said. "The only way you feel good about doing something [is] with repetition. That's why we're a better defensive team, because we spend so much time doing it."
Though he still holds the Purdue record for career 3-point shooting percentage, Martin classified himself as an all-around player rather than a shooter. That's the same niche in which Tatum falls, though without his long-range shooting, UT might not have nearly beaten Kentucky or taken down UConn last month. In spite of offense, Tatum has played 24, 22 and 27 minutes during his slump.
Though he never really has shied away from talking publicly about his offensive struggles, Tatum noticeably perked up a bit when asked about his defense, perhaps a sign that Martin's defense-first attitude is making a difference.
"I think I'm playing good defense," he said. "I think that's one of the thing things that's keeping me on the floor aside from having shooting woes. Playing hard and playing good defense is what's keeping me on the floor. That's where Coach Martin wants us to hang our hats, so I try to lead by example with that."
Seeing a shot swish through the net might not hurt, either.