With two weeks and four games remaining in the regular season, Tennessee has a chance to play its way onto the NCAA tournament bubble. The Vols have opportunities for quality wins in home games remaining against Florida tonight and Missouri in the regular-season finale. Here's a look at Tennessee's resume heading into tonight's showdown with the fifth-ranked Gators.
Road/neutral record: 5-7
Quality wins: vs. Wichita State (30), vs. Kentucky (46), n-Massachusetts (55)
Bad losses: vs. Georgia (123)
vs. Top 25: 0-2
vs. Top 50: 2-4
vs. Top 100: 7-9
vs. 101-200: 4-1
vs. 201+: 5-0
RPIs of remaining opponents: Florida (4), Georgia (123), Auburn (218), Missouri (38)
KNOXVILLE - The problem and how it was solved might be a mystery, but Tennessee isn't asking questions.
The Volunteers are simply happy that Trae Golden rediscovered his form.
With the junior point guard's midseason rejuvenation, they carry a five-game win streak into tonight's important showdown with fifth-ranked Southeastern Conference leader Florida.
"I don't really know. I'm just glad he's out of it now," guard Josh Richardson said Monday about Golden. "When he's playing well, our whole team is ticking, so it's definitely good to have him back rolling."
So why wasn't Golden rolling in January, when the Vols lost five of six games during one stretch? Coach Cuonzo Martin admitted after Golden scored 24 points and eight assists in the rout of Kentucky that he had "no clue" what caused Golden's slump. Martin hasn't forgotten it, though.
"You don't walk out there and say, 'I want to play like this,'" Martin said. "He didn't purposely do that, so there was obviously something there. As a coach, we've got to try to identify that so it doesn't happen again and be on watch for that.
"Physically he wasn't where he needed to be, and he knew that. Right now Trae's playing at a high level. Trae's playing the way Trae Golden plays, so now you put the ball in his hands."
While he played through a shoulder injury suffered in December, Golden's production sank. He lost his starting position and his confidence and hardly resembled the player who made some All-SEC preseason lists. In eight January games, he averaged 6.6 points, shot 31 percent from the field and stopped earning trips to the free-throw line, where he's a career 81-percent shooter.
"I knew eventually," he said Monday, "it would fade away."
Somehow, it's now almost a distant memory. Since missing two games with a strained hamstring, Golden has gone on a five-game tear that's coincided with Tennessee's surge. The run includes three 20-point games, two eight-assist games and three games of shooting at least 10 free throws.
"I don't think anything was going on," fellow guard Jordan McRae said. "It happens. I knew it was a matter of time till he gets back to how he was.
"Trae started to work out more, started to do more things to make himself better, and this is the result. Being hurt, and in a slump, it just compounds things. I think for him for a second he was thinking about it a little bit, but he's fine now."
Obviously. Golden has 48 percent from the field in the past five games, and he's made six of his last 13 3-point attempts. The two midrange jumpers he made in the fourth overtime of Saturday's win at Texas A&M gave Tennessee the needed separation and capped his career-high 32-point performance.
But the resurgence goes well beyond his scoring.
"Whether Trae's making or missing shots, you can see his body language and know when he's locked in," Martin said. "There are times where he's not making shots but he's still locked in. He's been locked in the last five games, and that's the most important thing."
The funk certainly wasn't from a lack of effort or commitment. Golden spent many mornings doing drills with assistant coach Tracy Webster even during his slump. The number of workouts didn't increase as he struggled, but he did increase the variety of the extra sessions.
"I did different things," he said. "Obviously you have to do different things to get different results. Coach Webster, every morning we came in here, and he worked with me.
"Some mornings Coach Martin came in and just watched me. They were really adamant on me getting my rhythm back. It was an effort with all the coaches and the players just helping me out."
And it's paid off.
"He's the leader for our team out there on the floor," McRae said. "He can make things happen for himself and for others. That's the kind of player every team loves to have on their team."
That's no mystery.