KNOXVILLE - Trae Golden knew he'd have ups and downs.
Tennessee's point guard expected to have games when he'd score 20 or more points, but the sophomore also anticipated there'd be nights when his contributions might be needed elsewhere.
Ultimately, Golden just wants to help the Volunteers win games.
"It's a tough balance to have," he said before practice Thursday, "because it depends on how the defense plays you, it depends on the looks you get, and every night it's not going to the be the same. I know that, and I know every night I'm not going to get 25.
"Every game's not going to be the same for me. Some games I'm going to definitely score more, some games I'm going to definitely assist more, and it comes and goes. I'm not going to hang my hat on scoring 25 every night, but being able to run the team and get assists, that's something that I really look for and that's something I've got to continue to get better at."
Golden is battling his second slump of the season, though he insists it's not frustrating. Heading into tonight's game against Auburn in Knoxville, the 6-foot-1 Georgian has scored two, 16, two and four points in his last four games since a 20-point outburst at Mississippi State in which he tweaked his left ankle. He's made just 10 of his 38 shots and one of 11 3-point attempts during that stretch.
After scoring 13 or more points in UT's first five games this season, Golden failed to reach that total in the Vols' next seven games before breaking out with a 29-point performance against UT-Chattanooga. In his six games of 10 points or less, UT is 2-4.
"I've got to continue to be aggressive," he said. "It'll all come for me; it's just something that happens during the season. You go through slumps."
The scoring struggles haven't diminished Golden's value, however. The SEC's leader in assists has had two six-assist games in his four-game slump, and coach Cuonzo Martin praised Gordon for how he defended and ran the offense in the Vols' upset of Connecticut last week.
When Golden hands out six or more assists, the Vols are 6-3, though Martin insists Golden - and every Vol, for that matter - is at his best when he defends well.
"I've said it time and time again," Martin said, "you hang your hat on the defensive side of the ball. You don't consume yourself on offense. If your focal point is shot, shot, is my shot falling - [if] that's your gauge, then when you're struggling you don't have a presence anywhere else on the floor.
"But if you play a total floor game, then everything else falls into place. You rebound, defense, shut your guy down, get 10 assists, because you can do those things."
Since the Vols began SEC play, opposing point guards have scored in double figures only twice, and both Mississippi State's Dee Bost (3-of-11) and UConn's Shabazz Napier (6-of-18) needed a lot of shots to get there. Golden deserves some of the credit for that, though UT's overall defense has been much better in that stretch.
Martin said Golden has "made strides" as a defender, and Golden agreed that he's improved.
That improvement, Martin said, begins and ends simply with the desire to play defense, something that might have required more time and effort to develop for Golden, who poured in more than 2,000 points in high school.
"That's what it comes down to more than anything," Martin said. "[You don't] have to be the quickest guy or the fastest guy, because I played [at Purdue] on one leg for three or four years of college. It's just a matter of, 'I'm doing everything in my power to help my team win this game.' When you get to that point as a player, it all falls into place."