Although junior guard Trae Golden averages a team-high 11.8 points per game, he has shot 1 of 16 over his last three games while dealing with a bruised left shoulder. He didn’t make a basket in either of Tennessee’s last two games.
Golden isn’t sure how much the shoulder is affecting his shot. He’s hoping to end the slump Wednesday as the Volunteers (8-4) host Mississippi (11-2) in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
“I really wasn’t shooting the ball that well before it happened,” Golden said. “And then it happened. It just adds to it. It’s something I’ve got to continue to get better at. I have to get used to it now and have to deal with it.”
Golden was playing his best basketball of the season before the slump.
He was named the SEC player of the week after scoring 25 points Dec. 13 in a 69-60 victory over Wichita State, which was ranked 23rd at the time. Five days after the Wichita State game, Golden had 16 points, eight assists and no turnovers in a 78-62 triumph over Presbyterian.
The slump started Dec. 21 when he shot 1 of 9 in a 66-52 victory over Western Carolina, though Golden still scored 10 points because he drove to the basket enough to go 8 of 10 on free throws.
Golden went 0 of 5 and scored five points Dec. 29 in a 51-47 win over Xavier and was 0 of 2 with four points Friday in an 85-80 loss to Memphis.
“I don’t think it’s a lack of confidence,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “He has the green light and shoots the most balls on the team. We need him to score the ball.”
Golden’s assist-turnover ratio also has taken a hit lately. In Tennessee’s first 10 games, Golden had 49 assists and only 17 turnovers. In his last two games, he has two assists and six turnovers.
His struggles began around the same time he hurt his shoulder while fighting through a screen in practice.
“It’s one of those injuries that’s progressively going to have to take care of itself,” Golden said. “It was really tender in the Xavier game, but other than that, it’s getting better. It’s just hard to lift my arm up in that area, but injuries are part of the game. It’s just something you’ve got to fight through.”
Golden understands that it might be something he has to work through all year.
“It’s not like an ankle sprain,” Golden said. “With an ankle sprain, it’s either sprained or it’s not. This is just more aggravating, and it’s going to be aggravating. It’s something I have to deal with.”
Tennessee beat Xavier and nearly erased a 21-point, second-half deficit against Memphis without getting much of a contribution from its leading scorer because other players stepped up.
Junior guard Jordan McRae has averaged 15.4 points over his last five games and scored a career-high 26 points against Memphis. Although he doesn’t start, McRae is now the Vols’ second-leading scorer with 11.6 points per game.
Sophomore walk-on guard Brandon Lopez played 13 minutes against Xavier and 14 minutes against Memphis. Lopez hadn’t been on the floor more than seven minutes in any of Tennessee’s first 10 games.
But the Vols need Golden to break out of his slump soon as they attempt to match their SEC success of last season, when they tied for second in the league with a 10-6 conference record. The Vols could use Golden’s scoring ability now that they know injured Jeronne Maymon isn’t returning from a knee injury that has kept him from playing all season.
The Vols announced Sunday they were redshirting Maymon, a second-team all-SEC selection last season.
“I think the conference season is a whole other year, a whole other season,” Golden said. “You’ve just got to go into it with an open mindset. Every team, every night is going to be a battle. You just have to make sure you’re ready to go.”