Mark Wiedmer: Martin's Vols putting it all together lately

Mark Wiedmer: Martin's Vols putting it all together lately

February 20th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin speaks with an official during an NCAA college basketball game against LSU on Tuesday in Knoxville, Tenn.

Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin speaks with an official...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Heading into Tuesday night's Southeastern Conference road test at Tennessee, LSU basketball coach Johnny Jones liked what he saw on the stat sheets.

In conference games only, his Tigers were leading the league in 3-point defense. The Volunteers, on the other hand, were dead-last among the SEC's 14 schools in 3-pointers made.

But they don't play college basketball games on spreadsheets. They play them in glistening arenas such as UT's Thompson-Boling, where the Vols shocked both the Tigers and their calculating coach by hitting 10 of 15 triples -- including all six launched by junior guard Jordan McRae -- in a 82-72 UT win.

"We need to take another look at that stat sheet, make sure it's right," Jones said afterward with a thin smile.

The NCAA Selection Committee may soon need to start taking another look at Cuonzo Martin's Vols, who've now won four straight league games by an average of 14.3 points.

Not that Martin seemed overwhelmed by his team's latest win, or McRae's career-high 34 points.

"We're playing good basketball," he said. "But we still have work to do."

Now 15-10 overall and 7-6 within the league, the Vols are still a long way from climbing inside the NCAA tournament bubble. But they're also well aware of that, which should serve them well in their final five regular-season league games, beginning this Saturday at Texas A&M and continuing next Tuesday at home against No. 5 Florida.

"We have to continue to stay humble," said point guard Trae Golden, who masterfully backed his classmate McRae with 20 points and eight assists. "A little over a week ago we were 3-6 [in SEC play]."

But that was before Golden bounced back from a strained right hamstring and center Jarnell Stokes began to play like the prep All-American he was -- and McRae rediscovered his shooting touch from afar, which had dipped below 30 percent before the LSU game, a stat painfully pointed out by Jones.

"We tried everything," LSU point guard Anthony Hickey said. "We pressed. We trapped. We'd run at them. And then [McRae] would hit another 3. He was the man tonight."

But what's most helping the Vols may be that it's becoming a different man every night. Golden poured in 24 against Kentucky last Saturday, and senior reserve Kenny Hall added 12. Stokes dropped through 17 points and 10 rebounds against Vanderbilt, his sixth straight double-double at that point.

"We're talking more," said McRae, who should be named the Rubberband Man for his ability to contort his body in whatever shape necessary to hit shots. "We're more, well, brothers."

Maybe it should have happened sooner, this four-guard lineup that Martin first installed last week against Vanderbilt -- the lineup that has poured in at least 40 points in the opening halves of the Vols' last three games.

Maybe the brotherhood was late to develop, slowed by the unexpected redshirt-due-to-injury of forward Jeronne Maymon, who would have been the team leader.

Without Maymon, Stokes was too quickly expected to shoulder the load. Without Maymon, roles had to be redefined, but not until January, because until then much hope remained that the powerful post player's knee would heal.

So they slogged through January and the beginning of February bumping into one another's roles, Golden's hurt hammy only lengthening the growing pains.

But then Martin went with four fine athletes around one superb post player, and everything changed.

"You'd rather win them all," McRae said. "But I'd rather lose early than late."

Just don't expect him to have stayed up late catching his individual highlights on "SportsCenter."

Said McRae of his reasoning for skipping ESPN replays of his contorted drives and carefree triples: "I've got a lab test tomorrow."

But the coach who may have relied too much on the science of statistics wasn't about to pull back on his praise of the Big Orange.

Said LSU's Jones: "They're probably playing as well as anybody in the league right now."

If it continues, it will be up to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to determine whether the Vols were better served by losing early rather than late.