Wiedmer: Vols off to another flat start

Wiedmer: Vols off to another flat start

December 19th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

KNOXVILLE - Jeronne Maymon never worried that he and his Tennessee men's basketball teammates would play a better second half than they had the first against North Carolina State on Wednesday night.

And it really had little to do with the fact that it might have been impossible for the Vols to play worse than they had in trailing the unranked Wolfpack by 37-20 at intermission.

"We always look like a different ball club in the second half," said Maymon at the close of a 65-58 loss, UT's fourth of the season in 10 games. "We've just got to do a better job in the first half."

Maymon's half right. The Vols are almost always a different team from one half to the next. But if Wednesday's second period was one of dramatic improvement, last Saturday's loss at Wichita State was one of gradual decline, eventually outscored by 10 points in a 70-61 defeat.

But at least the Shockers were ranked, a 2013 Final Four team playing on its home court.

The Wolfpack? Not so much. Though Mark Gottfried's club has now won six straight -- and he now stands 10-5 against the Vols as a head coach -- the Pack has lost at home to North Carolina Central a month ago. They crushed Northwestern, but barely nipped Detroit. For a team that believes itself to be an NCAA Tournament team -- as Tennessee does -- this was a must-win game.

Instead, the Vols lost. And rather listlessly, at least at the beginning, when they fell behind 6-0 and never drew closer than five points the remainder of the night.

"We had a chance to cut it to three and missed a layup," said third-year Vols coach Cuonzo Martin. "We didn't compete [early]. We were a step slow on both ends. I thought we may have been a little flat."

A lot of Vols fans may be starting to wonder if Martin's message is a little flat. After waiting nearly 30 minutes after this loss to begin his post-game press conference, the general feeling was that paint was peeling off the walls in the UT locker room, the coach having had enough of his unemotional team.

Instead, when guard Jordan McRae, he of the team-high 21 points in defeat, was asked what Martin said and how he said it, he shrugged and replied, "He said we need to change our approach."

Judging from this defeat to an N.C. State squad that entered this game ranked 145th on the latest RealTime RPI board, the coach may need to change his approach, too.

"I wouldn't say anything drastic," Martin replied to a question about the need to shake things up. "But we'll definitely look at some adjustments."

Given the Vols' acceptable .681 free throw shooting percentage, they might want to consider driving the ball to the basket more and shooting 3-pointers much less. Especially after missing 21 of 24 against State, an abomination that drops them to a woeful 30 percent on the year.

"I've got to stop shooting so many, I know that," said McRae, who hit just 3 of 12 against the Pack after bagging just 3 of 10 at Wichita State. "Twenty-two 3s in two games is way too many. I've got to drive the ball more, trust my teammates more. But when we get down I always feel like it's up to me to bring us back."

A senior, McRae should know better. And he readily admits as much.

"Lack of leadership," he said when asked about the slow start. "Me, and Jeronne and Jarnell [Stokes] have to do a better job."

Perhaps they will. As bad as a 6-4 start seems for a team that many believed capable of challenging for the SEC regular-season title at the start of the year, Maymon is technically right to point out that, "We could end the season with four losses."

But not many teams capable of doing that find themselves 17 down at halftime on their home court to an opponent that's already lost at home to N.C. Central. Not too many teams about to go on a big run have their coach say they were a little flat.

This is not to say that Martin isn't the man to lead the Vols, though at least a few disgruntled fans among the 14,831 seem to begin to be leaning that way, such as the guy who screamed out with 15 seconds to play, UT within seven: "Don't wait until now to play hard."

But having failed to reach the NCAA Tournament his first two seasons, Martin needs to ride this veteran team -- three seniors and two juniors made up Wednesday's starting lineup -- to a March Madness appearance.

"We're going to fix it," said McRae, mindful of the late-season charges through the SEC by Martin's first two Big Orange squads. "We always do. We just can't wait until late January this time."

Waiting until late December may prove risky enough.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com