The Volunteers lost four of their first five SEC games last season and ended up 10-6 to finish tied for second in the league standings. This year, they’re 1-3 in league play and confident they can turn things around again.
Tennessee beat Mississippi State 72-57 on Saturday to end a four-game losing streak that included three conference games.
“We’re still in a great position because we didn’t lose to any bad teams,” sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes said.
Tennessee (9-7, 1-3 SEC) plays at No. 23 Mississippi (15-2, 4-0) on Thursday and hosts Alabama (12-6, 4-1) on Saturday, giving the Vols a chance to avenge their first two conference losses of the season. Mississippi beat the Vols 92-74 in Knoxville on Jan. 9. Tennessee fell 68-65 at Alabama three days later.
“It’s payback week,” sophomore guard Josh Richardson said. “We lost two games to these guys. I definitely think these next two games are going to be big for us.”
While the Vols’ recovery from a poor start a year ago gives them reason for optimism, there are a couple of major differences this season.
Last year, Tennessee benefited from the midseason arrival of Stokes, who instantly became one of the Vols’ top players. The Vols won’t have that type of addition this season.
Tennessee also doesn’t have forward Jeronne Maymon, a second-team all-SEC player last season who is redshirting with an injured left knee.
“I feel like it’s an entirely different team without Jeronne being here,” Stokes said. “We’re more of an inside-outside team. When Jeronne was here, we were more of a bruising-type team.”
But the emergence of freshmen Derek Reese and Armani Moore could give the Vols a lift, even if they don’t provide the same type of boost Stokes offered last year.
Reese missed the first 10 games of the season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder and dropped 15 pounds during his recovery from surgery, but the 6-8 guard has scored nine points in two straight games. His shooting ability could prevent opposing defenses from double-teaming Stokes.
Moore’s playing time dropped after he struggled early in the season, but the 6-5 guard has earned a bigger role lately and pulled down 11 rebounds against Mississippi State. He sustained a hip pointer in Monday’s practice that has left his status as day to day.
“They really help,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “They both can handle the basketball. They can make decisions with the basketball. They can make plays. I just think they are growing. They are growing on the fly.”
Tennessee’s higher-profile players also are showing encouraging signs.
Stokes has struggled to assert himself on offense at times this season, but he took a big step forward Saturday by scoring 18 points to go along with 11 rebounds. Tennessee is 5-0 this season when Stokes makes at least six baskets.
Trae Golden’s slump caused him to fall out of the starting lineup, but the junior guard responded against Mississippi State by producing 10 points and nine assists with only two turnovers.
“You have to have key parts,” Martin said. “In order for us to be at the level (we want to be at), we have to be consistent. Trae Golden, Jarnell Stokes need to be solid for us. It’s nothing spectacular, but they need to be the guys that they are.”
Stokes and Golden must deliver solid performances again Thursday as the Vols seek to win on an opponent’s home floor for the first time all season. Mississippi is in the Top 25 for the first time since 2010 and eager to prove it deserves that ranking.
“For the most part, this group has been pretty good about trying to stay in the moment,” Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said. “It’s easier said than done. It seems like everybody wants to talk about what has happened in the past, what’s going to happen in the future, as opposed to staying right here in this moment. That’s what I’m trying to get our guys to focus on.”
The Vols don’t mind talking about what’s happened in the past. They recall the embarrassment of their 92-74 home loss to Mississippi. They remember Marshall Henderson, who talked up a storm while scoring 32 points against a Tennessee team that prides itself on defense.
They see this game as a chance to make amends.
“We feel if we stop (Henderson) from scoring the ball, we won’t have to worry about his mouth or any of his antics,” Stokes said. “Just stop him.”