The Volunteers (4-3) aren’t struggling as much as they did a year ago, when they lost six of their first nine games before surging late in the season. But they’re 0-3 against major-conference opponents and are coming off two of their worst offensive performances of the shot-clock era.
Tennessee will try to end its two-game skid by handing No. 23 Wichita State its first loss of the season Thursday at Thompson-Boling Arena. Wichita State (9-0) is seeking to go 10-0 for the first time in school history.
“It probably puts more pressure on this game just because of the last two games,” junior guard Trae Golden said. “We’ve got to make sure we come in with our hard hats and get the victory.”
Tennessee followed up a 37-36 loss to Georgetown in the SEC/Big East Challenge on Nov. 30 by falling 46-38 at Virginia on Dec. 5. The only other time Tennessee failed to score 40 points since the 1985-86 introduction of a shot clock was a 43-35 loss to Auburn on Jan. 15, 1997.
The recent slide is cause for concern, but the Vols don’t see it as a reason for panic. Tennessee rebounded from its 3-6 start last year to finish 19-15, though the Vols missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005.
“We didn’t make shots in two games,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “(Now) we move forward. Panic, that’s not even part of what we talk about.”
The slow start has caused a change in priorities at least for the short term. Tennessee players said they’ve been attempting 500 shots per day in practice as they attempt to break out of their collective slump.
“It’s definitely a big difference,” sophomore guard Josh Richardson said. “The focus has always been on defense since I’ve been here at least. Now it’s shifted to offense.”
Martin saw reason for optimism against Virginia, though the final score didn’t reflect it.
After criticizing the way his team performed against Georgetown’s zone, Martin believed the Vols executed better against Virginia’s man-to-man defense. He said the Vols got open looks. They just couldn’t make their shots.
All those missed shots continued a trend.
In Tennessee’s three losses, the Vols have shot 29.1 percent overall (43-of-148) and 19 percent from 3-point range (11-of-58) while averaging 39.7 points. In their four wins, the Vols have shot 51.4 percent overall (108-of-210) and 41.4 percent from 3-point range (24-of-58) while averaging 77.8 points.
During this recent slide, the Vols haven’t even shot well when nobody’s defending them. Tennessee went a combined 8-of-19 on free throws in its last two games.
“When you miss so many shots, you start to think about it,” junior guard Jordan McRae said. “I just think we need to just play basketball.”
Now they’re looking for solutions.
Tennessee’s players have mentioned the importance of speeding up the tempo just a bit to give themselves more possessions, while Martin has discussed the necessity of getting sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes more involved. Stokes leads the Vols with 11.9 points per game, but he has taken a total of eight shots over his last two games.
“More than anything, we’ve got to do a better job of getting the ball to Jarnell Stokes,” Martin said.
Stokes’ midseason arrival last year helped Tennessee recover from its early struggles and go 10-6 in SEC competition. The Vols could get a similar boost this season from the return of senior forward Jeronne Maymon, who still hasn’t played since having a preseason setback in his recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery.
Maymon averaged 12.7 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds to earn second-team all-SEC honors last season.
“When you lose that type of (player), there’s an adjustment period,” Martin said. “Not to say you shouldn’t have won games, but you have to get used to it. Not only does he play hard and compete, he’s a guy that everybody likes. When you don’t have that piece there, it’s not an easy thing.”
Until Maymon returns, his teammates must take it upon themselves to lift Tennessee out of its recent funk. The Vols remain confident they’ll turn things around soon.
“Everything’s magnified right now just because Jeronne’s out and we had two games under 40 points, but we’re fine,” Golden said. “It’s still early in the season, so we’ll be good.”