Night Line: Vols Making Habit of February RevivalPosted by BHayes on February 27th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
Attention bubble dwellers – it is time to make room for the Tennessee Volunteers. After a rousing victory over the SEC’s best in #8 Florida, the Vols are officially back in the NCAA Tournament picture. If you are feeling as if you have seen this movie before, it’s probably because you have. A year ago, Cuonzo Martin’s club ripped off eight victories over the course of its last nine regular season games, overcoming a disastrous 10-12 beginning to find their way into the March bubble talk. Losing to Ole Miss in their SEC Tournament opener would ultimately relegate last year’s Vols to the NIT, but this season’s bunch has a chance to script a different ending. More work left to be done for certain, but a late February six-game winning streak is a good place to start if you are looking to re-enter the NCAA discussion.
While the Vols may have reached their aesthetical nadir back in December after posting a total of 74 points in two games against Georgetown and Virginia (yes, I said total), it isn’t as if Cuonzo Martin’s club is all of a sudden winning pretty. Their adjusted tempo still places them in the bottom fifth of Division I basketball, and Tuesday night’s win over the Gators saw just one Vol in double figures, with Jordan McRae continuing his strong play by posting a game-high 27 points. Grinding pace aside, the team’s overall offensive efficiency (53rd nationally) is not bad, but the Vols are heavily reliant on getting to the free throw line and pounding the offensive glass — blue-collar efforts that may or may not appeal to the average fan, but that the tough-as-nails Martin has to love.
McRae’s enhanced recent contributions have been a big part of the Vols’ revival, but Trae Golden may be the best barometer for Vol success. The once-heralded recruit suffered through a poor first half of the year — poor enough for Martin to take his starting role away. The junior spent a pair of games coming off the bench before an injured hamstring kept him out of losses to Arkansas and Georgia, but it was his return against South Carolina that coincided with the beginning of the winning streak. Before his eight-point effort tonight he had reached double figures in every game since coming back, also averaging better than nine free throw attempts per game over the stretch. His value is critical to a team with few play-makers around him and a heavy reliance on getting easy shots at the rim (and free ones at the line), as no SEC team gets a smaller percentage of their points from beyond the three-point line. We know offense can look downright ugly for Tennessee at times, but a healthy and aggressive Golden has proven to be the best avoidance therapy Martin can find.
The home stretch is fairly manageable for the Vols. Road trips to Georgia and Auburn will be absolute must-wins, and the home finale against Missouri may fall into the same category. If it came to be, a nine-game surge heading into the SEC Tournament could easily leave the Vols needing just one win in Nashville to secure a bid, but first things first. Georgia has been playing some improved basketball of late themselves, so Tennessee better make sure they are aware that a win over Florida doesn’t stamp their Dance ticket. But if their collective memory does not fail them, they should be a focused bunch heading to Athens, as Martin and company know all too well that climbing the mountain means nothing if you never see the top.