Jordan McRae scored 19 points to lead six Tennessee players in double figures Saturday. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Saul Young)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee is heating up just in time for the start of Southeastern Conference competition.
Jordan McRae scored 19 points to lead six Tennessee players in double figures Saturday as the Volunteers tuned up for league play with a 98-51 blowout of Division II program Tusculum that represented their most lopsided victory in Cuonzo Martin’s three-year coaching tenure.
The Vols (9-4) head into Tuesday’s SEC opener with LSU on a three-game winning streak, and they have shot at least 50 percent in each of those three victories. Tennessee shot 57.4 percent (35 of 61) overall and 47.8 percent (11 of 23) from 3-point range against Tusculum.
“When you’re making shots - and we’re capable of making shots - we’re a different team,” Martin said.
Not all the news was good for Tennessee.
Reserve guard Robert Hubbs III sat out Saturday’s game after aggravating an injury to his left shoulder in practice this week. Hubbs had been wearing a brace on the left shoulder this season. Martin said after the game he didn’t have a timetable for Hubbs’ return.
But the Vols still have reason to feel optimistic. Tennessee has shot 53.4 percent (94 of 176) overall and 52.8 percent (28 of 53) from 3-point range over its last three games. Before this winning streak, Tennessee was shooting 43.1 percent (248 of 575) overall and 30 percent (48 of 160) from beyond the arc.
“It’s just coming in and getting extra shots,” said Tennessee guard Antonio Barton, who scored 14 points and shot 4 of 7 from 3-point range Saturday. “Guys are coming in on their own in the morning, later after practice, and just getting as many shots as they can.”
Jeronne Maymon added 16 points and D’Montre Edwards had a career-high 12 points for Tennessee. Jarnell Stokes and Josh Richardson had 10 points each. Richardson, normally a starter, came off the bench Saturday after arriving late for pregame preparation.
Tennessee had 30 assists to match the fourth-highest total in school history, four off the school record set against UNC Asheville on Nov. 17, 2009.
Darius Carter scored 22 points for Tusculum.
This matchup was considered a regular-season game for Tennessee but an exhibition game for Tusculum, which remained 1-11 after the loss. NCAA rules allow Division II teams to schedule two exhibition games against Division I schools, and Tusculum had only faced one Division I program during the preseason.
“We just wanted to go out there and make sure we executed,” Maymon said. “Division II team or not, they’re still a team that’s in our way, still trying to come in and look to steal a win from us, and we’ve got to go out there and play like it was any other game.”
Martin said playing a game against a Division II program that had no RPI impact might be more helpful than scheduling a particularly weak Division I opponent that could hurt the Vols’ strength-of-scheduling rating in the RPI.
This marked the first time that Tennessee had faced a Division II opponent in a regular-season game since beating Chaminade 86-60 in the Maui Invitational on Nov. 23, 2011.
Although the two schools are only about 75 miles apart, Tennessee and Tusculum hadn’t faced each other in a regular-season game since 1944. They have met three times in exhibition games over the last decade.
“We’ve got several Tennessee natives on his team and it’s a dream for them to be able to play here,” Tusculum coach Michael Jones said. “We’re very thankful and appreciative.”
Tennessee wasted little time asserting its superiority.
The Vols raced to an 11-0 lead, didn’t commit a single turnover in the first half and went on a 16-0 run at one point in the second half.
Playing an overmatched opponent allowed Martin to substitute freely. Edwards, a little-used guard who had scored just four points all season before Saturday, had seven points in the first half alone.
“I had a good week of practice,” Edwards said. “Coach just always preaches to everybody, whether it’s Jordan McRae, Jarnell or me and (walk-on guard) Brandon Lopez, just stay ready because you never know when your time’s going to come.”